‘JUMBO’ AFI Fest Review: Terms of Engearment

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

JUMBO

Not Rated, 94 minutes

Directed by: Zoé Wittock

Starring: Noémie MerlantEmmanuelle BercotBastien Bouillon, Sam Louwyck

It seems preposterous that a unique story like the one in writer-director Zoé Wittock’s JUMBO would ever exist in real life, but here we are. The auteur steals inspiration from a true life tale about a woman who, in 2007, married the Eiffel Tower (No, really. Stop laughing). Part CRASH ‘96 for amusement park fetishists and part TERMS OF ENDEARMENT in its mother-daughter characterizations, the drama’s bonkers concept centers on a woman in love with a tilt-a-whirl. Yet the most shocking element about this straight-faced schlock is how conventional and predictable it is in its motions.

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) doesn’t quite fit societal norms. She’s an awkward young woman sporting a squirrely, infantile pageboy haircut who works as a janitor at a local amusement park, builds models as a hobby and lives with her free-spirited, overbearing single mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). She has trouble relating to men, both potentially plutonic and paramours. However, the arrival of a new attraction (pun intended) at the park causes her sensuality to blossom. “The Move It” tilt-a-whirl ride comes alive when she’s alone one evening, introducing itself in its language of scuzzy electronic whirrs, warbles and flickering lights – think CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND’s spaceship welcome – as “Jumbo.”

Every man loves to think he fits that moniker, but this metal beast truly is. Its illuminated neon sentience casts a spell over Jeanne, making her succumb sexually to its whimsical charms and playfulness. They have arty, hallucinogenic sex where it leaks its thick, oily grease all over her naked body (No, really. Stop laughing). She even attempts to have Margarette experience her new boyfriend’s talents (which is disturbingly bizarre when you think about it), forcing her onto the ride despite her mom’s dislike. When Jeanne confesses her objectophilia, mother and daughter must come to an acceptance.

Noémie Merlant in JUMBO. Courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

For as strikingly unconventional as this romantic pairing is, Wittock follows the well-trodden territory of many romantic dramas. The splashy National Enquirer-esque “I Married An Inanimate Object” logline should lend itself perfectly to adopting the same tone as LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and yet it doesn’t. She even dodges a lot of questions that arise when it comes to the rules of the world presented: Does Jeanne get jealous when other women ride Jumbo? Are there other Jumbos elsewhere and would she fall for those too?

The mother-daughter dynamic is on the lazy side as well, lacking the potency to make their third act impasse land with any sense of gravitas. While the sequences involving the romantic partners are packed with highly-stylized, indelible imagery, they fail to properly connote the orgasmic freedom the ride delivers to the heroine. It’s mostly on the nose, double-entendre laden symbolism. This makes it difficult for the audience, who are all busy stifling their chuckles, to connect with the narrative’s earnestness. Merlant certainly commits to the bit, at least. Only it’s a wonder why Jeanne doesn’t just buy herself a vibrator and call it a day.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5

JUMBO played AFI Fest on October 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.