The Wild Sundance Movie About a Woman in Love With a Theme-Park Ride
The lyrical French Sundance indie “Jumbo” focuses on a little-known condition called objectophilia in which people develop romantic feelings for inanimate objects.
Jumbo may be among the first narrative films to focus on objectophilia—or romantic attraction to inanimate objects—but there have been enough TLC segments on the condition to at least half-absorb one’s attention through a very long flight. Perhaps the most famous of these cases is Erika Eiffel, an Olympic archer who married the Eiffel Tower in 2004. In the media, Eiffel’s case was rarely taken seriously, surveyed instead with raised eyebrows and punny punchlines.
Eiffel’s story was also the inspiration behind Jumbo, which approaches its object romance—between a theme park worker named Jeanne and a ride named Jumbo—with far greater curiosity and generosity than they’re so often granted. The film is writer-director Zoé Wittock’s debut feature, and it’s an impressively realized study, nailing a tricky tone without judging or fetishizing its subject. It’s also a gorgeous film visually, full of dimly lit sequences punctuated with swirls of vibrant color. Throughout, the story spins on an axis of vigorous subjectivity; from its vivid opening shot, in which Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s dazzling Noémie Merlant) stands in a field gazing at the ride, we’re acutely aware that what we’re about to experience belongs to her and her alone.
Jeanne is mousy and withdrawn, and we get the sense that she isn’t fond of human interaction. She spends her nights working the theme park graveyard shift and her days tinkering with tiny models of the park’s rides she’s built in her bedroom. She’s also rather prudish and awkward about her body, self-consciously covering her skin when her towel falls down, even if she’s just alone in her room. Her cozy home’s only other occupant is her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), who, to Jeanne’s embarrassment, affectionately calls her “Sugarpuss.” Margarette is a familiar wild mom character, as spirited and outgoing as Jeanne is restrained, and she has a hard time understanding why her daughter isn’t trying to find a boyfriend.
But Jeanne is less interested in men than she is in the park’s newest amusement: a twinkling Tilt-a-Whirl she calls Jumbo. Massive and glowing, the ride by night looks less like a ride than an otherworldly spacecraft, radiating mystic light and energy. Scrubbing down its bulb fixtures in the dark, Jeanne will straddle the structure’s arms and sometimes talk idly, more comfortable speaking to herself than to any of the park’s daytime visitors. She’s content to live her life this way, until she slips and nearly dies one night, and the ride begins to come alive.
Wittock is extraordinarily tasteful in her approach to anthropomorphizing Jeanne’s new friend. Scenes in which Jeanne talks to Jumbo are thoughtfully rendered without silliness or condescension, and though we never get a sense of Jumbo’s personality, we begin to understand the appeal of the machine as a companion. “We are good together, aren’t we?” Jeanne coos to Jumbo at one point, which responds by blinking its lights in colorful patterns. Later, when Jumbo seems to go quiet, Jeanne cries, “Don’t leave me alone with them!” In her world, humans have always been a “them”; being with Jumbo is the first time she’s felt part of an “us.”
This idea is particularly useful when it comes to the tricky business of sex. There is, obviously, a built-in allure to a movie like Jumbo: Are they really going to show this beautiful actress getting it on with a giant steel structure? The short answer is yes, sort of, though not in a girl-humping-metal way. For the most part, Wittock prefers to employ suggestive imagery: water overflowing in a bathtub, jet-black oil spreading over bare skin. The images are elegantly erotic, evoking orgasm in all its sexiness without any of the voyeurism. For the most part, Jeanne’s relationship with Jumbo feels less about carnal desire than affectionate connection. It’s no surprise she can climax while with the ride; she’s finally found a space to feel safe and seen.
Jumbo is, overall, a weirdly uncouth story handled with rare grace and delicacy, and this contrast is what ultimately makes it feel so special. It’s also admirable that the film neglects to punish or pathologize Jeanne’s attraction. Where a less astute movie would subject her to some sort of “wake-up call” that this relationship isn’t fit for reality, Jumbo’s ending is buoyant, balancing hope with respect. Wittock understands that tolerance—especially for experiences that feel strange and new—doesn’t always just appear. It has to be learned and shared, and her portrait of Jeanne is a good start.