Jumbo Review: A mesmerizing and warming showing of somewhat strange love
There have been films where people fall in love with blow-up dolls, hot red cars, the voice of a computer operating system, and other inanimate objects, but with her directorial debut, writer/director Zoe Whittock brings viewers into a unique and glowing tale of strange love with Jumbo.
There’s a moment in the film where someone talks about how objects have souls of their own that stick with you and make you fall in love with them. When thinking about how people name their cars or other prized possessions and treat them with a personal connection that’s sometimes better than how they treat other people, there’s definitely some truth to that statement. It’s what makes films about people growing a deep loving connection to inanimate objects not as strange as they seem on the surface. It presents a different view of love that goes past just a physical intimacy and fleshes out deeper feelings. Whittock brings all of this out in Jumbo as she tells the story, apparently based on a real-life account, of a woman named Jeanne (Noemie Merlant) falling in love with the new carousel ride at the amusement park she works at.
The carousel, which Jeanne calls Jumbo, looks like your standard amusement park ride with all the bells, lights, and whistles. Jeanne sees something more though and Whittock does an excellent job giving Jumbo a personality through his lights and even kind of a voice. It’s hard not to be a little transfixed by the dazzling lights that draw you in and make Jumbo really feel alive. There’s a certain mysticism to him that makes Jeanne feeling this connection to him incredibly real and it’s great how Whittock uses the lights and mechanical sounds to make you see how Jeanne sees and feels Jumbo. Even the way that Whittock creates this sensual connection between Jumbo and Jeanne is strangely intriguing and dreamlike. There’s legitimately something fantastical and fateful about Jeanne and Jumbo being together on-screen that’s oddly warming and feels real with how Whittock also establishes Jeanne.
At face value, it’s easy to label Jeanne as just lonely with her being quite a recluse compared to her more sociable mother and being ridiculed by many of the men around her for being that weird quiet girl. Even the idea of her being older and still living at home with her mother gives off the impression that she’s missing some sort of social skills to move forward in life or waiting for some kind of greater meaning. However, as she begins to become more drawn to Jumbo you never feel like her feelings for him only stem from her being lonely, isolated, or searching for something greater. It’s more like a fated encounter that sees Jeanne finding a missing piece of herself in Jumbo and allowing her to grow a bit.
At the very least, you certainly feel the meaning and impact that Jumbo has on Jeanne’s life and it’s brought out excellently through Merlant’s incredibly committed and compelling performance. Merlant recently had a big breakout performance in Celine Sciamma’s 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire and continues that momentum and energy here. She really goes through a similar rollercoaster of emotions that feel heightened here with the direct opposition and ridicule that Jeanne receives for how her feelings towards Jumbo make her look. Even through all the weirdness, Merlant keeps things real with how Jeanne tries to grapple with her feelings, and you can feel the devastation and heartbreak she has in how people’s view of normalcy threaten to keep them apart and label her as confused and crazy. It’s honestly what makes Jumbo hit a relevant chord about love to make it incredibly timely.
Although it’s about a girl falling in love with a carousel, there’re some moments and heartwarming realizations about love and happiness that come towards the end of the film that could easily fit into an LGBT love narrative. There’re talks about acceptance and letting people be happy regardless of who they’re with that are incredibly timely and leave an impact with how the film does a great job taking its central love story serious. However, there’re moments here and there, specifically with how the music is used, that create this comical or loosening feel that doesn’t always work and end up taking you out of the seriousness of what’s happening. It just sometimes turns a meaningful moment into something a little too goofy that impedes how the film draws viewers into the real romance happening on-screen. The film can also drag a bit in how slow moving it is, but these minor flaws never fully impede the film’s central romance from latching onto your heart and keeping you wrapped up in their warming glow.
Whittock creates an incredibly deep and compelling debut with Jumbo’s strange central romance that sees Merlant continue to deliver powerfully committed performances. She and Whittock are truly rising stars as they come together to showcase a uniquely weird and wild romance fantasy full of translucent visuals and genuine warmth.