Jumbo | Review
Do Introverts Dream of Electric Carousels?: Wittock Waxes Fatuous in Debut
A finely wrought tradition of European cinema includes a bounty of infamous depictions of humans engaged in sexual or romantic congress with non-human counterparts. Always courting or breaking taboo, they’re often also girded by an eventually recuperative shower of cultish devotion, and a sterling range of examples would be the slimy alien in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), the chimpanzee in Nagisa Oshima’s Max, Mon Amour (1986), or the bestial frolicking in the perverse fairytale La Bete from (1975) from Walerian Borowczyk. In her directorial debut, Belgium’s Zoé Wittock conveys the romantic and sexual odyssey of an introverted woman suffering/enlightened by her mechanophilia, a sexual attraction to machines. Usually, it’s men who fuck machines (i.e., robots shaped like comely women) in the cinematic realm, from Metropolis to The Stepford Wives to Ex Machina, in genre narratives about futuristic modes of control. Whatever the themes of human and non-human copulation, there’s usually some significant metaphorical subtext bolstering outlandish, sometimes troubling concepts. Unfortunately, Wittock’s narrative can’t ever stutter past its logline, failing to invoke any kind of characterization, tone or ambience to effectively convey her tale of a young woman in love with an amusement park ride.
Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is a shy young woman who lives with her bartender mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), their lives still defined by the absence of her father, who abandoned them years prior. Having just been recently hired at an amusement park she’s been attending since a child, Jeanne finds she is attracted to the newfangled star attraction, a Tilt-A-Whirl she nicknames Jumbo. While cleaning Jumbo’s chrome at night, she discovers the machine responds to her attention and soon a curiosity becomes sexual and romantic on the part of Jeanne. While Margarette finds hope in a new relationship with Hubert (Sam Louwyck), she wants nothing but the same for her daughter and is dismayed when she discovers the budding relationship between woman and machine, instead trying to goad Jeanne into the arms of her amorous co-worker, Marc (Bastien Bouillon).
As the inscrutable and frustratingly vague Jeanne, Noémie Merlant (still riding the crest of praise from Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019) has little more to do than spin her wheels as an emotionally stunted woman locked in a dysfunctional, emotionally enmeshed relationship with her single mother, played by Emmanuel Bercot in what’s supposed to be white trash mode. Surprisingly, for the most part, Bercot doesn’t stray too perilously over-the-top, but Wittock’s script whips her into a strange frenzy of an obsessive mother who is both celebrated and demeaned in ways which are reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s coterie of frazzled, garish working-class moms. But Wittock’s melodramatic relationship issues never makes sense and each thinly stenciled interaction alludes to a potential diagnosis from Jeanne’s past but absolutely refuses to logically address the potentially dangerous attraction she has to an inanimate object.
Wittock’s sole fantasy sequence, which could have worked had the majority of this one-sided romance been a more fanciful, erotic fairy tale, involves Jeanne reaching orgasm while naked in pool of a Jumbo’s liquids—never mind what those corrosive elements would do inside certain orifices…
Frustratingly silly, Jumbo paints a portrait of two questionably sane women whose appeal is neither visually nor textually conveyed and then juxtaposes them with two men who are not only one-dimensional but inordinately cruel. Bastien Bouillon’s Marc takes an immediate and overtly intense liking to Jeanne, for unexplained reasons, the continuation of which would predict sexual assault in most realms, and whose eventual post-coital rejection stages the film’s silliest bid for emotion at a ceremony where Jeanne is awarded “Best Employee” just so she can collapse on stage when she learns of Jumbo’s fate (side note: Jeanne is also lightly plagued by a trio of young male adolescents, who either work for the park or are constant attendees, seemingly obsessed with filming Jeanne’s social awkwardness to post online—but who knows since they’re never introduced or explained, but necessary for the film’s ‘magical’ ending). And then Belgian character actor Sam Louwyck is Bercot’s new beau, who takes an immediate liking to and unquestionable sympathy for Jeanne, coming to her defense when Bercot gets strangely aggressive about her daughter’s ‘relationship,’ barking at Margarette he can understand why people leave her (but he’s on hand for the next scene as if this never happened).
On paper, Jumbo sounds like a novelistic, intriguing scenario, but Wittock’s gamble never takes flight and instead feels like an amorphous stab at shock value with a scenario as undernourished and on par with an episode from “My Strange Addiction.”
Reviewed on January 24th at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Dramatic Competition – 93 Mins.