Fairground attraction: object sexuality delicately depicted by Zoé Wittock

Jumbo is an award-winning coming-of-age romance featuring Noémie Merlant

Zoé Wittock and Noémie Merlant

Zoé Wittock and Noémie Merlant

 

In 1979, Eija-Riitta of Sweden coined the term “objectum sexual” when she “married” the Berlin Wall – and changed her last name to “Berliner-Mauer”.

“They mutilated my husband,” she protested in 1989.

 Erika La Tour Eiffel, a former US Air Force cadet soldier and professional archer, married Paris’s most recognisable landmark in 2008. She was previously romantically involved with a bow named Lance, a recurve which took her all the way to the Olympics. 

  In 2009, a 27-year-old Japanese gamer who calls himself “Sal 9000” married Nene Anegasaki, a character from the Nintendo DS virtual dating video game Love Plus, in a ceremony that was live streamed online. 

'My thing was just to leave it to the emotional personal story of the character. I didn’t want to make it about convincing outsiders that this was okay.'

  Object sexuality is delicately depicted in Jumbo, an award-winning coming-of-age romance from Belgian filmmaker Zoé Wittock that many critics have characterised as a 21st-century, Amelie. The film was partially inspired by an interview with Erika Eiffel, who Wittock consulted while developing the script. 

  “We spent a long time exchanging questions and very personal answers and, and also stories of other objective sexuals that she has around her,” explained Wittock. “So she was a great source of information. I also went to talk to psychologists, the first one I went to was like: I really can’t tell you much about that and I can’t be of any help. Because at the time, which was I think 2011 or 2012, there was not that much information or research on the subject. So I had to sort of go to a few psychologists before I found someone who could talk me through the sexual identity without judging it as a fetishism. I always hate that word, because it’s negative. Like we’re looking like we’re putting the person who’s living a romantic story in a box. I understand it medically. But I don’t think of these people as patients. Whether you agree with them or not, they are still people just trying to live their lives and not harming anyone. My thing was just to leave it to the emotional personal story of the character. I didn’t want to make it about convincing outsiders that this was okay. This is just about a mother and daughter trying to understand one another”

  Jumbo casts Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Noémie Merlant as Jeanne, an awkward young woman who develops a psychosexual attraction to a fairground ride at the tatty seasonal amusement park where she works. Her romance baffles her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) but, slowly, Jeanne becomes her [own] woman. The film requires a committed and frequently oily performance from Merlant, who will soon grace the red carpet at Cannes as the star of Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District. Amazingly, France’s most talked about actor almost missed out on Jumbo. 

Noémie Merlant in Jumbo
Noémie Merlant in Jumbo

 “The casting took a long time,” says Wittock. “I think we saw more than 100 girls. Some were amazing and truly committed to it. But I just couldn’t really find the character. So when Noémie into the room, I said no, which was a terrible, huge mistake. And then I called her back eight months later after I realised I was thinking about her that whole time. And when she came back, she just blew my mind. I mean, I think that she comes at her character with such heart and such earnestness. Because I don’t think Noémie even understands what crazy means. Like, for her, that’s not even a word. She is just so wild. There are no boundaries. And that’s what’s beautiful about her. She had that eccentricity to her and that craziness to her and that awkwardness to her that made you uneasy, and at the same time, she had that huge heart and emotional earnestness that allowed you to be taken by her character’s struggle and her joy.”

    It’s tempting to frame Jumbo within Belgium’s increasingly muscular film industry. Once a national cinema distinguished only by the presence of the Dardenne brothers, Belgium has, in recent years, found festival and awards success with such titles as the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), Black (2015), and The Brand New Testament (2015). The latter film, in common with Jumbo, draws upon such Belgian surrealist artists as René Magritte and Paul Nougé. (Tellingly, Wittock’s thesis film at the American Film Institute was titled This Is Not An Umbrella, in tribute to Magritte’s This Is Not A Pipe.)

   “The great thing with Belgian cinema is that there is less conventionality and fewer rules because it’s a new or a newer cinema, right?” says the filmmaker. “There were films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. But they didn’t have the French New Wave. We were kind of invaded - I don’t mean that in a negative way - by French films.”

  Despite Witttock’s nod to Magritte in a film that was selected for showcase by the Director’s Guild of America, the director suggests that Jumbo’s arresting off-kilter visuals and bright colour schemes owe more to her African upbringing than any European predecessors. The daughter of a Belgian diplomat, she spent her earliest years in the Congo until the civil war demanded that the family be repatriated to Belgium. They moved to the Ivory Coast soon after and remained there for eight years until Wittock’s father was transferred to Australia. 

'When people ask me to reference my films, it’s really hard for me to answer because my influences are American blockbusters, and cheap kung fu movies, and not much else'

  “It was such a joy and such a chance to have been confronted with so many different cultures from such an early age,” says Wittock. “When you live so far away from your home country, it’s like anything is possible. You meet so many different kinds of people. You live outside of your social class. I do think that this is one of the reasons that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Everything that I had lived through in Africa became the origins of my wanting to tell stories. In Southwest East Africa, they’re the best storytellers in the world. They have the best proverbs and citations. And there’s such strong imagery in the stories that they tell.”

   Aged 17, Wittock travelled from Sydney, Australia to France to attend the International Film School of Paris. She worked on film sets in the electrical department, as a second unit director, as a production manager, as a script doctor, and as an actor before relocating – again – to the US where she was awarded the Hal and Robyn Berson scholarship for excellence in directing. She has spent the past eight years living between Paris, Los Angeles, and Brussels, locations that have allowed her to catch up with European cinema. 

  “Growing up in Africa, where there’s barely any theatres, at least at my time, you might get one American blockbuster or one French film, and that would stay for six months in the theatre,” says Wittock. “The only other theatres, strangely enough, were very cheap, ghetto theatres showing kung fu movies. Which was really cool. But apart from that, we didn’t have much of a film culture. So I’m still struggling to bring myself up to date with the whole of film history. When people ask me to reference my films, it’s really hard for me to answer because my influences are American blockbusters, and cheap kung fu movies, and not much else.” 

Jumbo is in cinemas and on digital platforms from July 9th 

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