Noémie Merlant shines as a woman in love with a fairground ride, but Jumbo lacks psychological insight into the real phenomenon of Objectum Sexuality. Jumbo is screening in Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition.
Noémie Merlant’s (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) deeply felt performance prevents Jumbo from becoming twee despite its out-there premise: an amusement park worker falls in love with a Tilt-A-Whirl ride. The film, which claims to be based on a true story, is likely inspired by an American woman, Amy, who appears in the documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008, dir. Agnieszka Piotrowska). A theme park ride named 1001 Nacht is one of Amy’s many lovers, and the documentary explores how she and two other Objectum Sexuals (people who are sexually attracted to objects) approach intimacy and romance. Their partners range from the Eiffel Tower, to the Berlin Wall, to simple back garden fencing.
Jumbo and Married to the Eiffel Tower (which you can watch here) come to a similar conclusion — that we should have empathy for these women, who aren’t hurting anyone, rather than shunning them — but Jumbo takes a less psychologically insightful route to get there. We follow Jeanne (Merlant), a lonely young woman who is withdrawn from society and feels infantilized by her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot), whom she lives with. Jeanne gets a job as a night guard at the theme park that she’s loved visiting since childhood: she feels uncomfortable around her male boss, who comes on to her, but she finds true companionship with the park’s newest attraction, a ride she christens “Jumbo”. At night, there’s nobody around but the two of them, and Jeanne feels free to caress and talk to Jumbo away from prying eyes.
Director Zoé Wittock and Merlant encourage us to take Jeanne’s connection to Jumbo seriously, as it feels real to her. There’s not a hint of knowing sarcasm in Merlant’s performance; rather, she plays Jeanne as an intensely emotional young woman who finds real fulfillment, personal and sexual, in her relationship with Jumbo. She caresses the ride’s nuts and bolts as if it were a human sexual partner that she is deeply in love with, staring at metal plates like she’s making intense eye contact. Wittock indulges Jeanne’s fantasy that the object is sentient through fantasy sequences, where the ride comes alive of its own accord and communicates with Jeanne through a kind of morse code of flashing coloured lights. We also enter Jeanne’s sexual fantasies, wherein Jumbo leaks oil from its hinges, and the oil seeps over Jeanne’s naked body like a lover’s hands and sexual fluids.
However, Wittock’s film lacks the psychological insight of the documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower, which delves into why Objectum Sexuals identify as such. While Amy contends that she was born this way, her mother believes that her attraction to objects is the result of social conditioning, and Piotrowska explores how trauma has shaped the Objectum Sexuals in her conversations with Amy and other people like her. Interestingly, every known Objectum Sexual in the world is a woman, and most of them are survivors of sexual abuse or abusive homes. Amy describes how the mutual love she felt between herself and the Twin Towers kept her from taking her own life on multiple occasions.
Jumbo gestures at why Jeanne isn’t able to feel security and trust in her relationships with people and why she feels comfortable with objects (on whom she can project her own desires), but the explanations it settles on are all too easy. Sure, Jeanne has a poor relationship with her mother, but she doesn’t face abuse to the extent that most Objectum Sexuals have, and ultimately mother and daughter accept each other; Jeanne’s mother constantly refers to an unnamed neurodivergence of Jeanne’s, which we assume may be a form of autism. Jumbo is far more interested in using Objectum Sexuality as a vague metaphor for why we should accept any kind of marginalised identity, like neurodivergence or queerness, rather than digging into the specificity of Jeanne’s romantic attraction. To that end, using Objectum Sexuality feels like a cheap ploy to get more eyes on a seemingly out there film rather than an actual interest of Wittock’s.