Berlinale 2020: 'Jumbo' Cleverly Explores Theme Park Ride Romance
by Alex Billington
March 3, 2020
Doesn't matter if it's man or machine, you can fall in love with anything. And that's okay. Jumbo has one of those crazy weird concepts that either shouldn't work at all, or seemingly fits right in with the rest of The Asylum's ridiculous filmography. But, somehow, it works. Which ultimately is a testament to writer/director Zoé Wittock and her skills as a filmmaker. Jumbo originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and also played at the Berlin Film Festival. And it damn well deserves to be in both of the fests because it's a uniquely original, surprisingly serious, and impressive feature about a French woman who falls in love with a theme park ride she calls "Jumbo". It's yet another new fresh twist on the classic 80s coming-of-age romance, with a few cliche moments that end up being fun because it's not any human partner she's chasing.
Both written & directed by Belgian filmmaker Zoé Wittock (making her feature directorial debut after a few short films previously), Jumbo stars actress Noémie Merlant (last seen as one of the leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as a nerdy, shy young woman named Jeanne. She still lives at home with her single mother, Margarette played by Emmanuelle Bercot, who is a loud, overbearing, controlling, man-addicted middle-aged woman that only cares about why her daughter is not dating any guys yet. Jeanne works at the local amusement park in the forest, and when they bring a new twisty, twirly ride to the place, she starts to get curious. Spending her evenings alone with the ride, which she calls "Jumbo", her curiosity turns into full-on romance. But no one else can understand or even comprehend their love, which all too common nowadays.
It's an obvious metaphor for the usual romantic LGBTQ-esque commentary about "let them love whoever they want to love", even if it is a machine! Beat for beat it has all the typical moments, like her mother not understanding how she could love something other than a guy, her forced relationship with the sleazy park manager guy (to appease her mother), and sultry scenes of exploration with someone, or rather something, new. Despite all this obviousness in the concept, Wittock pulls it off just right. It features a nice twist with the mother-daughter relationship being toxic (instead of an expected man being awful), plus the earnestness of everything – the performance, the romance, the reality – makes it an intoxicating film to watch. Jeanne is the new Amelie, but so much geekier. I can't wait for more people to discover and revel in this unique film.
Beyond the metaphorical sexual-discovery story, the film overall is flashy and super spirited and warm and stimulating. The way they make the ride seem sentient, and tender, with glowing lights and movements is genuinely thrilling. At least for a fellow geek like me. Another friend proposed that the ride might even be female, it has that feeling, even though they call it "he" in the film (and technically it has no sex anyway). All the colorful lights and interactive techy stuff with Jumbo won me over, and even though it's super serious, there is an amusing charm expressed through the filmmaking. One particular shot where she is standing below it as the ride runs at full-speed and full intensity is awe-inspiring – you can feel the rush of adrenaline through the screen. And damnit – she can love whatever machine or object she wants. Love is love, after all.