Jumbo (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): She falls in love with a machine (no kidding)

French film “Jumbo” pushes its preposterous romantic situation all the way, and I admire that even though I often observed its heroine’s peculiar romantic feeling with amusement and skepticism from the distance. Sure, you may have some doubt on her feverish viewpoint, but whatever she feels and experiences seems to be real to her heart at least, and you will probably come to have some understanding and empathy on her extraordinary circumstance even if you often roll your eyes on how far she is willing to go in the name of love and passion.

Noémie Merlant, who was unforgettable along with Adèle Haenel in Céline Sciamma’s great romance period drama film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), plays Jeanne Tantois, a shy young woman whose life mostly revolves around her workplace and her residence where she has lived with her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). As your average middle-aged busybody quite frank about her heterosexuality, Margarette is quite interested in when her daughter will finally have a boyfriend, but Jeanne is not particularly interested in meeting any man at present while usually occupied with making models in her room, and she is not so pleased when her mother later tries to match her with one of Jeanne’s fellow employees.

Jeanne has worked in a small local amusement park, and it gradually turns out to us that she has actually been quite attached to a recent new attraction installed in the amusement park. Whenever the opening hour is over at night, she usually spends some time with this new attraction as lovingly wiping its surface a bit, and she even calls it, yes, “Jumbo”.

At first, her romantic attraction toward Jumbo looks rather unilateral, but, as least in her viewpoint, Jumbo can actually communicate with Jeanne, and she is delighted to discover at one night that Jumbo is really alive and, perhaps, loves her as much as she adores it. Although it certainly cannot speak in words, Jumbo seems to be capable of expressing its thoughts and feelings to her via those numerous colorful light bulbs on its surface, and that surely makes their private moments look quite surreal as well as romantic to say the least. While it is not able to caress her physically, Jumbo can make Jeanne feel pretty good and stimulated as giving her one hell of ride, and we can clearly sense from her thrilled face that she has never been as exultant as that.

And that is just the foreplay for several odd sexual moments between her and Jumbo. Sure, Jumbo does not have any, uh, tool for making Jeanne’s body feel more intimacy between them, but she and Jumbo come to find a way to get a sort of organism as reflected by one weirdly ‘sticky’ sequence, and her following reaction in the aftermath is not so far from that cloying sense of embarrassment experienced by any person having the first sexual experience. After all, sexual intercourse is inherently not so clean and pretty from the beginning, and Jeanne and Jumbo’s case turns out to be no exception.

When Jeanne subsequently decides to be more opened about her unconventional sexuality, her mother is naturally flabbergasted and outraged, and we accordingly get some intense emotional moments between them. While quite hurt by her mother’s strong rejection of her odd romantic relationship, Jeanne becomes not only more passionate but also more confused about her romantic feeling toward Jumbo than ever, and the director/writer Zoé Wittock’s screenplay, which is, believe or not, inspired by a real-life story, keeps its attitude as straight as before, even during its heroine’s wildest moments including the one involved with her miserably failed attempt on being ‘normal’ later in the story.

Everything in the movie depends a lot on Merlant’s terrific performance, which ably carries the story to the end via its forthright display of unadulterated emotions to be felt and understood by us. Even when we observe Jeanne from the distance, we still empathize with her to some degree thanks to Merlant’s strong acting, and you may come to cheer for her character when her character is more empowered by her romantic feeling and then takes a bold step for herself as well as Jumbo around the end of the story. In case of Jumbo, this huge metallic entity is imbued with a considerable degree of personality and presence, and that is the main reason why Jeanne’s romance with it somehow works despite many preposterous aspects of their relationship.

The main weakness of the film is that its several human supporting characters around Jeanne look relatively underdeveloped even compared to Jumbo. Although she is mostly stuck in her thankless role, Emmanuelle Bercot manages to enliven her role enough to complement Merlant, and Sam Louwyck also acquits himself well as a gruff dude who turns out to be more compassionate and understanding than expected.

Although it could be improved more in terms of story and characters and the finale feels a bit too hurried in my humble opinion, “Jumbo” is still a memorable piece of work thanks to its confident and sensitive handling of its offbeat main subject as well as another fine performance from Merlant. To be frank with you, I do not think I wholly understand whatever is exchanged between its heroine and her metallic lover, but my mind is now going back to the humorously poignant lyric of “If You Could See” from “Cabaret” (1972).

If you could see her through my eyes
You wouldn’t wonder at all.
If you could see her through my eyes
I guarantee you would fall. (Like I did.)
When we’re in public together
I hear society moan.
But if they could see her through my eyes Maybe they’d leave us alone.

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