Jumbo: A magic-ride escape from reality

There is comedy and warmth in a drama about a woman’s love for an inanimate object

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Director: Zoé Wittock
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon, Sam Louwyck
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins

We have, in recent years, been made aware of an interesting phenomenon in which human beings develop unstoppable passions for physical objects. There was that woman who declared her love for the Eiffel Tower. Psychologists have puzzled over the meaning of this apparently new development, but few film-makers have ventured into territory that might yield too easily to comic absurdity. Zoé Wittock dares to take it on with an extraordinary, bewitching tale that manages great sympathy for its eccentric protagonist. The film is, perhaps, a little light on plot, but it is to be commended for connecting empathetically with a woman whose feelings drive her far from everyday norms. There is comedy here. But there is also much warmth.

Noémie Merlant, so good in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, plays Jeanne, a lonely young woman working as a janitor in a Belgian amusement park. It soon becomes clear that she has become obsessed with an old-school ride whose circling movements fill her with a comfort that is otherwise missing from an unsatisfactory life. Early on, we see the local lads making fun of her. Elsewhere suggestions emerge that she may be on the autism spectrum. She builds a small replica in her room. She seems weirdly satisfied with the nausea the ride’s movements induce in others. One night she has an accident when cleaning Jumbo – as the ride is knowingly dubbed – and gets the impression that her mechanical paramour rescues her. Facing up to the alternative truth, she becomes convinced that the apparatus can offer her escape from the humdrum realities of people who refuse to understand her.

If the film were made in Ireland – at some windy resort battered by Atlantic storms – the atmosphere would be that bit more grubby and miserable, but, for all the underlying sadness here, Wittock invests real magic in her whirling, borderline-surreal images. It's not exactly a world you would want to live in but Jumbo, nonetheless, is awash with a sympathetic visual aesthetic that gives us some sense of where the odd passion springs from. It needs a strong actor to compete with that madness, and Merlant does not disappoint. One of Europe's best young performers again shows us the inner workings of romantic tunnel vision. Emmanuelle Bercot is equally strong as her not entirely sympathetic mother.

Well worth paying your money and taking the ride.


Available to stream from July 9th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist