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The opening shot of the skewed romantic drama Jumbo is of a naked Noémie Merlant putting on her clothes in her bedroom. She’s an attractive young woman with a fine body, as the camera makes clear. An edit later and we’re with Jeanne (Merlant) as she bowls out the door and heads off to work. There’s a noticeable difference in her that goes beyond the clothes. Her indoor, naked, persona was bright and bubbly; outdoors Jeanne is mousy, lacking in self-confidence, withdrawn and nowhere near as attractive. But all this is about to change, when Jeanne falls in love with a ride called Jumbo at her local amusement park.

A carousel, to be precise. And yes, it sounds like a joke. And yet the odd thing about Belgian writer/director Zoé Wittock’s feature debut is how absolutely down-the-line straight it is. A woman falls in love with a machine, what of it?

Partly this is because Jeanne has been simply yet boldly drawn as a young woman whose new job at a funfair is clearly the culmination of an earnest lifelong desire. She loves machinery, as shots of Jeanne working once the crowds have gone home make clear, the wiping down the paintwork, the cleaning of the banks of extinguished light bulbs.

Also it’s because the relationship with Jeanne’s mother is an interesting one and is well drawn. Jeanne the withdrawn, the prim; mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) the outgoing, the outrageous, forever urging Jeanne to get laid, even going so far as to try and recruit Jeanne’s new boss, Marc (Bastien Bouillon) into helping the daughter join the mother in the world of the libido.

Marc is also interesting. A version of the lairy fairground lad who probably smells of Swarfega, he’s more sensitive than the usual stereotype and he and Jeanne do indeed strike up a friendship shading into a romantic relationship, especially once, in a moment of shared confidences, he agrees with her that, yes, a machine could have a soul. Put this in the “things men say to get what they want” box if you like, but he says it.

Jeanne singing in the car with her mother
Good times with her mother

But whatever it is that Marc says, it’s Jumbo who has the words (gurgles, growls) that Jeanne wants to hear and in the film’s climactic scene, a fantasy playing out in Jeanne’s head, probably, she gives herself to the spinning, whirling mass of metal and flashing lights with an abandon that Marc could only wish for. Again, this sounds amusing but it isn’t meant to be, though there might be tittering at the back when Jeanne face starts getting speckled with engine oil in a money shot for the ages.

I was steered towards this unusual film by the French Film Festival UK mailer, often a source of good things. And I was glad I was. It’s particularly odd watching Steven Spielberg’s playbook being deployed in a sexualised way but that’s what Wittock is doing with her mix of the magical and the adult. The bright winking lights of the Move It (Jumbo’s official name), the sense of being transported into another realm, the capturing of awe and wonder, the “is he going to communicate?” moments, all seem pulled from the Close Encounters, ET, AI end of Spielberg’s resumé, and Wittock consciously echoes the shooting style of those Spielberg fantasies, too.

We’re all used to blinking, thinking metal machines (think R2-D2) but this is something else in terms of transgressive relationships. And yet, in some senses, it’s not so far from the role Merlant had in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the boundary crossed was merely gendered.

Take it all as a big metaphor, if you like, and Jeanne’s mother is clearly the angry, disgusted parent met in many a coming-out drama of yore – “if you get really wet, he might get rusty” she spitfires at one point, before throwing her daughter out. Or take it as a portrait of a young woman’s sentimental education, or of the battle for command of the sexual terrain between a dominant mother and her controlled but rebelling child.

Or even as a trans-racial analogue. It’s a bit too early for a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remake about a serious young woman bringing home a cyborg to meet ma and pa, but you’d put Zoé Wittock down as a name to have a go at it.

Jumbo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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