March 5, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Jumbo’ review: Noémie Merlant fully commits in French fantasy

OK, this one is weird. But unique.

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), a withdrawn young woman who lives with her arrested-adolescent mom, starts working at an amusement park. One of her duties is to tend to the rides after closing. She develops an affinity for the park’s newest ride, “Move It,” which she calls “Jumbo.” Her manager, Marc (Bastien Bouillon), falls for her, but the poor fella doesn’t stand a chance. Despite his best efforts to romance the socially awkward woman, she has fallen for another, and he’s way bigger than Marc.

Yes, she has fallen … in love … with Jumbo.

Wheeeeeee: Noémie Merlant (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) stars in “Jumbo,” the story of a girl and her amusement park ride … and their intimate amusements.

(Dark Star Pictures)

So apparently object sexuality is a thing; you might call it that thing when you’ve got a thing for things. “Jumbo’s” first-time narrative feature writer-director Zoé Wittock took inspiration from the actual story of an Olympic gold medalist who “married” the Eiffel Tower in 2007. One could argue the 1987 comedy “Mannequin” is about this; maybe “Ex Machina” is. Anyway, it’s not an entirely new subject, but Wittock’s approach feels new.

The first part of “Jumbo” disturbingly implies something horrible might happen to this vulnerable girl. Then the plot’s gears turn, and Wittock sinks us into Jeanne’s world, taking her perception seriously.

The exterior, shared world, feels appropriately ordinary. Wittock didn’t cast models or streamline sets or anything like that. It’s shot plainly. Colors feel muted. But when Jeanne is working on models she crafts of rides and structures, the palette is dominated by the colored bulbs she places in them. Her scenes communing with Jumbo are painted by the versatile hues of the ride’s lights. It’s not as if Wittock flips a switch to announce to viewers this is a different world; the transitions are subtle, communicated smoothly by Thomas Buelens’ malleable and often gorgeous cinematography.

This isn’t a cutesy adventure where the machine makes bippity-boop noises to communicate or a “Transformers” clanker where it folds into human form. This is a drama about an earnest woman who might be mentally ill, who has a romantic and sexual attraction to an amusement park ride (and parents beware: There is frank sexuality here, so you might want those only above a certain age to go on this ride).

It will surprise none of Merlant’s fans that she gives herself over to the role. Whatever you think of Jeanne’s attachment, Merlant lets you in on Jeanne’s feelings. You believe this really matters to her.

Marc starts as a shady, possibly harassing, boss, but as Bouillon’s performance steeps, other flavors come out. Veteran writer-director-actress Emmanuelle Bercot likewise offers a multilayered portrayal of Margarette, the bon-vivant mom searching for love. In a small role as Margarette’s latest paramour, Belgian dancer and actor Sam Louwyck unfurls a surprisingly sympathetic character. Jumbo’s performance, however, is rather mechanical.

So will Jumbo take Jeanne’s heart for a ride? And should we object to her sexuality if she’s not hurting anyone? These questions, and more, abound in the out-there, but not-like-anything-else-out-there, “Jumbo.”

‘Jumbo’

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 19, Laemmle Virtual Cinema; Available March 16 on VOD