At heart, Zoé Wittock’s “Jumbo” is a rather conventional European dramedy about a single mother (the great Emmanuelle Bercot) struggling to accept the woman her daughter has become. On its surface, however, this pleasantly delirious feature debut tells the fable-like story of Jeanne, a young loner (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” breakout Noémie Merlant) who develops a deep psychosexual attraction to the tilt-a-whirl ride at the rundown Belgian amusement park where she works. So much that she orgasms at the thought of jet-black oil jizzing out of its metal parts and enveloping her nude body like the symbiote from “Venom.” Splitting the difference between “Terms of Endearment” and David Cronenberg’s “Crash” in a way that’s often sweet and surreal (but never sinister), Wittock essentially takes an ultra-familiar premise and coats it with the candied shell of something you’ve never seen before. It’s enchanting stuff, at least until that colorful layer of hard sugar melts away and you’re left to chew on the beige core inside.
If Jeanne’s cloistered imagination and unkempt bob immediately suggest that “Jumbo” is huffing the fumes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magical realism, the probing severity of Wittock’s style — and the extent to which it possesses her characters — soon paves the way for a story that borrows more from the Brothers Grimm than from the likes of “Amelie.” For her part, Jeanne isn’t quirky so much as stunted and self-contained (the film’s producer has described her as “a bit autistic,” a telling descriptor that nevertheless feels a bit glib without a proper diagnosis). Nearing 30 and still living with her mom in their small house across the Luxembourg border, Jeanne keeps her meager savings in a piggy bank, and has Margarette (Bercot) pack her “sugarpuss” a lunchbox before work each day.
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But this new job seems like it could be a good opportunity for Jeanne to reach out into the world on her own terms; she’s a tinkerer who prefers soldering metal to making new friends, so a gig cleaning giant machines for the summer is a perfect fit. More perfect than her mother could have ever imagined, in fact, as Bercot plays Margarette as a brassy salt-of-the-earth type too focused on the cold logistics of her lower-middle-class existence to have time for the fantastical. She’s not the type to notice that driving Jeanne to work takes them through a forest so dense you half expect to see Dale Cooper peeking out from between the fir trees, and she’s definitely not the type to be cool about her daughter’s new crush.
The flirtation is one-sided at first, but Merlant approaches the obscure object of Jeanne’s desire with the same tactile intensity that she previously used on Adèle Haenel in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The ride resembles an overturned metal starfish, and Jeanne looks at it as though her gaze were enough to give it life. She cleans its rivets with her spit, starts to call it “Jumbo” — a name that’s both silly and undeniably hyper-sexual — and waits for the ride to notice her. The shadowy and ethereal synth score by Thomas Roussel helps suggest that it’s only a matter of time before that happens, while also discouraging viewers from caring whether it will be “real” when it does. Men are unreliable (especially men like Jeanne’s father), but Jumbo is always waiting there for her. Men have ulterior motives, but Jumbo is fueled only by gasoline. Men are at the mercy of their own desires, but Jumbo was built to give pleasure to others. The machine literally sweeps Jeanne off her feet.
It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship between Jeanne and Margarette is meant to be the heart of this movie — kids are never further away from their parents than when they’re harboring a new crush — but it’s hard for that kind of simple domestic strain to compete with the love story between a beautiful young woman and several tons of pure steel. The scenes between Jeanne and Jumbo are as evocative and beguilingly erotic as the ones between Jeanne and her mom are staid and predictable. The latter thread frays off into a couple of iffy romantic subplots involving small and squishy human men (gross), but Jumbo commands the screen.
The seduction between the movie’s forbidden lovers is endowed with the same mix of awe and uncertainty that vibrated between Amy Adams and her nice alien friends in “Arrival,” and Wittock cleverly turns all of the machine’s lights and noises into their own kind of language in a way that straddles the line between fantasy and reality. Jumbo blinks like a UFO, moos like a massive sea creature, and makes it easy for even quizzical audiences to appreciate how Jeanne thinks of the machine as more than just an oversized vibrator. Indeed, Wittock’s imagination is at its most amusing whenever the logistics of inter-matter sex come into play, as she decides to avoid them in favor of a more impressionistic approach that underscores the soul of an object.
The film’s ample horniness is always in the service of its heart, and Merlant’s naked flesh is just the quickest way of getting under her character’s skin. Set inside — and promptly soiling — the sterile white void of Jeanne’s imagination, the centerpiece scene is an unforgettably intimate moment that’s abstract enough to recall the opening sequence from “Under the Skin,” and maintains the same fascination with how people can be as pliable as the world around them (it’s impressive that “Jumbo” can borrow from so many other movies and still feel at times like the first of its kind). We are transformed by the things we see, touch, and otherwise encounter out in the unknown, and the world attaches itself to us as much as we ever do to it.
If only Wittock shared Jonathan Glazer’s willingness to accept the mystery of it all and keep logic at an arm’s length. “Jumbo” climaxes when Jeanne does, giving way to a busy third act that ties all sorts of cute little ribbons around a movie that’s most enjoyable for its open-ended fantasy. Merlant, excellent in a potentially limiting role, cements her status as one of European cinema’s most exciting new stars, while Bercot navigates the plot’s hairpin turns with the manic grace of a true pro, but neither of them can prevent “Jumbo” from feeling smaller than it should. By the same token, none of Wittock’s rookie mistakes can stop her debut from being a ride worth taking.
“Jumbo” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.