Objectum sexuality is a subject either played as an offhand joke or used for shock value. Multiple cases have puzzled the internet since its inception, a sort of strange sideshow for headlines. It is a realm used for controversy or as a meme, certainly not one that is expected to appear in a near-crowdpleaser. Zoe Wittock‘s directorial debut, starring Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s breakout Noémie Merlant, manages to make the story of a woman who falls in love with an amusement park ride approachable and romantic. We somehow root for this odd couple; Merlant’s character, Jeanne, has a love for the ride, affectionately named Jumbo, that is filled with a childlike honesty and wonder it is hard not to root for.
Jumbo opens with a shot of Merlant, back to the camera, in a haze of brilliantly colored lights. These aren’t the lights of her oversized lover, but the general roar of color and sensory stimulation provided by the theme park at night. It’s a setting that feels inherently backwards, a ghost town without the cheerful screams it is accustomed to, lit by bulbs alone. Jeanne is most comfortable here alone, perhaps the rides at her work are what she is most comfortable with – no need for much conversation with these beasts. She assembles wire models of the park attractions in her bedroom, watched over by her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot), the only human being she’s close with. The two are somewhat co-dependent, even when her mother doesn’t quite understand her desires, the two operate on similar wavelengths.
The romance begins as Jeanne is alone with the new attraction when walking the grounds at her work at night. She rubs one of the lights, and the massive machine bursts into life, flaunting lights, colors, and sounds in hopes to entertain her. Her new attraction to the new attraction (which is a ‘him,’ by the way) puzzles her mother, who tries her best to set her daughter up with men in hopes that she’ll someday become ‘normal.’ Jeanne does not want this normalcy, despite forcing herself to try it at one point, and her bond with Jumbo grows stronger, as the two begin to intensify their relationship and the theatrics in the physical displays of affection that come with it for one another.
A particularly commendable aspect is the way Wittock handles intimacy. A scene where Jeanne sleeps with a man when she begins to fear her own feelings for Jumbo is audible, but scarcely seen. The camera is trained on a mirror – we hear, but do not see more than a blur until it’s over. Nudity is never gratuitous, and never shown unless necessary, and the brief and obscured scene with the man serves to remind that this is not a love story between two people, and that the ride remains the focus. Intimacy is shown between our two unlikely lovers, a surreal, stylized sequence reminiscent of Under the Skin, shows a physical bond form between the two. Consent between the two is eventually communicated, and they are able to anticipate each other’s needs, and even provide comfort.
For a film so simple, there is a lot that is left to interpretation that adds new layers. For starters, Merlant’s character could easily be read as autistic, especially through her hyperfixations and ways of interacting with others. Not only that, but much of the film can be read as an allegory for how society treats queer people. Jeannie’s attraction to Jumbo is mocked; she is told that it isn’t love, that it is impossible for them to have a physical relationship, she should try harder to like men, and that they could never marry. Sure, the relationship is outlandish, but isn’t that how so much homophobic sentiment is stated? Her attraction is treated the same way it is for gay people, and we the audience even find it strange no matter our background. Perhaps this is a way of putting all audience members in the same position, of reminding all of us of how quick we can be to judge, albeit using a far more peculiar example than usual.
Through saturated neon lights and spinning colors in the sky, Wittock presents a thoroughly modern fable. It’s a simple story of girl meets tilt-a-whirl, a two-sided romance packaged with a storybook ending. Already drawing comparisons to The Shape of Water, it’s a classic outsider finds unlikely love narrative used to repackage the endlessly meme-able concept.
A- Review 2020 emmanuelle bercot jumbo noemie merlant portrait of a lady on fire the shape of water under the skin zoe wittock
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