Wednesday 14 July 2021

Is she really going out with him?: "Jumbo"

Zoé Wittock's
Jumbo is world cinema fictionalising the true-life material of those Channel 5 documentaries about women who've formed unusually intense, in some cases overtly sexual attachments to the Forth Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. In this case, it's Noémie Merlant, the pallid painter of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a fairground cleaner who confounds everyone by tumbling head-over-heels for a waltzer commonly known as the Move It, but which she fondly rechristens Jumbo. This unlikely courtship begins when Merlant's awkward, friendless womanchild Jeanne offers the attraction's lights a gentle buffing one night shift, then develops to Jeanne caressing Jumbo's underbelly and straddling its cogs while barefoot. A more obviously comic movie might have presented its heroine's affections as wholly unrequited, and thus framed Jeanne as even more of a fruitloop than she already seems. Yet in this telling, the cheeky mechanical minx actively leads our girl on, teasing the possibility of a free and unforgettable ride. Jumbo flashes a lone bulb at Jeanne; its toing-and-froing makes the ground shift beneath her feet; and Wittock eventually pulls back to show these mute pulleys and pistons communicating in some way with their devoted attendant, much as the spaceship did with Truffaut at the end of Close Encounters. In the vast and many-fabled history of mankind, people have fallen for less, I guess.

Nevertheless, Jumbo remains a pretty far-out proposition. If Collins and Maconie's Movie Club was still around to hand out its Rum Film of the Week, this would win at a canter, and its integral perversity will surely catch John Waters' eye at some point down the line. There are cinematic precedents: I was reminded in places of the relationship between the kid and the Iron Giant or the kids and the kindlier Transformers, films where expressive nuts and bolts provide a means of escape from dull, earthbound reality. (Here, that reality is represented by blowsily overbearing maman Emmanuelle Bercot and the fairground's resident bullies.) Jumbo, too, is quite childlike, even childish in its outlook, and you'd have to be fairly wide-eyed to buy it whole: while less intense than she was in Portrait, Merlant commits 100% to the role of a Martian fairytale princess. How that innocence squares with such images as Jeanne bathing topless in engine oil is anybody's guess, though, and I don't think even Wittock has figured it out. She compensates with nice, atmospheric shots of the ride in action, swathed in plumes of dry ice and apparently enjoying a life of its own, but Jumbo never permits us normies a clear enough line on the flesh-and-blood half of its equation. Is Jeanne a problem child, to be pitied, or a free thinker, to be cheered? As it is, she emerges as but a curious case; much like the film that bears her beloved's name, you'll either get her or you won't. Granted, there's nowt so queer as folk, but Wittock appears to be circling an even trickier point: that female desire, in particular, is turbulent, unpredictable, perhaps even unfathomable on some level.

Jumbo is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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