Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 93 minutes
    Release Date: July 1st, 2020 (France) / February 19th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Rézo Films / Dark Star Pictures
    Director(s): Zoé Wittock
    Writer(s): Zoé Wittock

What is it if it isn’t love?

Jeanne Tantois (Noémie Merlant) has never been one for people. Besides her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) and co-worker Fati (Tracy Dossou), she’d avoid talking to them all. You can’t blame her for this attitude considering what so many do the moment they witness her shyly eccentric demeanor. She closes her eyes in a wince when someone gets too close and they almost always come back with a chuckle or unoriginal playacting of being “scary.” They mock her, ridicule her, and laugh rather than attempt to even begin to understand who she is. They’re the reason Jeanne works the overnight cleanup shift at her local amusement park. Only then can she be herself without wondering who’s watching. Only then can she exist without worrying about the world’s intolerantly conventional expectations.

Add this season’s new operations manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon) taking an interest in Jeanne despite her peculiarities and Zoé Wittock‘s singular feature debut Jumbo opens like so many other quirky romances putting an outcast together with an empathetic partner willing to bridge the gap between her view of reality and the so-called “normal” that has forever rejected it. He appreciates her love for machines and applauds the makeshift models Jeanne has constructed in her room to bring the magic of the park to life whenever she craves its lights and sounds. And Margarette couldn’t be happier to see a man taking interest considering she’s never been one to keep her libido under wraps or her yearning for her daughter to want the same pleasures she does.

Where things diverge, however, is the fact that Marc isn’t the man for whom Jeanne has become infatuated. Her smiling and talking to him would get anyone who knows her to think the opposite were true, but he’s still a person. He’s flesh and blood and fallible and imperfect. You only have to watch Jeanne enter the park while it’s still open to realize that her inability to truly be around other human beings isn’t an act or something time will somehow fix. Whether trust, fear, or plain disinterest, no one has ever made her feel the way she’s seen and heard others feel with those they love. She might have even given up on the notion that romantic love was possible. But that’s all about to change.

It finally appears in the form of the park’s newest attraction: a six-armed spinning behemoth coined Move It. And why not? This is a woman whose sole source of joy comes from building machines behind closed doors and giving them life. She admires their craftsmanship and power, priding herself on keeping both big and small versions looking as gorgeous as they did the first day they were put together. The best part of all, though, is their ability to listen. While Marc and Margarette constantly work to steer conversations back to them, Jumbo (as Jeanne rechristens the Move It) wants for nothing but her happiness. He’ll flash green for “yes” and red for “no” and contort himself into a hand’s palm to cradle her safely and secure.

The way in which Wittock gives Jumbo agency is wonderful with colors, movement, Bumblebee-esque radio static, and a surreal aura whisking Jeanne away into his fantastical embrace. She also flirts with some tech horror that’s had many people wonder what someone like David Cronenberg could have done with the material, but such thoughts discredit the fascinating tonal pathways she’s taken that he never could. The “sex” scene covered in oil isn’t a loss of innocence, but an awakening to passion. Every moment they share together is one of pure joy and understanding—something she had yet to ever find. And when Jeanne dares to share that happiness, its rarity is only reinforced. Those she loves begin looking at her the way everyone else does. Suddenly she’s utterly alone.

Jumbo is therefore more akin to a children’s film with its protagonist discovering something impossibly amazing only to be dismissed outright by adults. Rather than a boy or girl finding their coming-of-age moment alongside a best friend named Elliot, Iron Giant, or the aforementioned Bumblebee, however, this is a grown woman seeking solace in a lover who satisfies a lust she didn’t know she possessed. And yet the plot progressions are identical. Marc is this “imaginary” friend’s real life foil. Margarette is too busy fulfilling with her own notions of love to consider her daughter’s relationship as more than a dangerous delusion. And Mom’s new boyfriend Hubert (Sam Louwyck) arrives as a voice of pragmatic wisdom fed up with our propensity to tear down those we should champion.

The lesson is the same too. Why let the disappointment in your own self-absorbed existence slaving to the responsibilities and social norms of a world that’s done you no favors ruin the exhilarating glee of the people you’ve always counted on to be by your side? Why should you judge when you hate being judged? Jeanne isn’t hurting anyone. This fetish isn’t ruining lives or breaking up marriages. It simply is what it is and shouldn’t be denigrated out of a fear of what others might think. All that does is show how you care more about strangers than the person who’s been nothing but a cheerleader despite your own romantic missteps. All it does is prove you’re more worried about how their actions affect you than them.

Jeanne isn’t therefore the only one going through a transformation. Margarette is too. And as someone who laments the pain of loving someone who doesn’t love her back, you’d think she’d be more empathetic to the fact that Jeanne’s feelings are reciprocated—whether in reality (if Jumbo truly is “alive”) or in her mind. So despite the absurd scenario in which they’re caught, the earnestness of its presentation and Merlant and Bercot’s performances is crucial to its success. This isn’t a comedic farce. And while it is a metaphor, it’s also not wholly a figment of imagination. The pain and suffering must be just as authentic as the inevitable acquiescence to the unknown to acknowledge that nobody has the right to say who or what you can love.

courtesy of Nightstream

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