Zoé Wittock’s feature film debut is destined to cause quite a stir by anyone reducing it to its basest sensibilities, so much so that it feels important to get a synopsis out of the way as early as possible to best unpack what else it has to offer. Yes, this is the movie where Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout Noémie Merlant falls in love with (and has sex with) an amusement park ride. It’s also a really sweet coming-of-age story.
Jumbo is hard to pin down; it’s a fantasy that is remarkably aware of reality. It knows that its transgressions have real world consequences, but abandons the very idea of human law while also embracing the things that make us human, namely love and lust (and maybe not in that order). It is also one of the better films about budding sexuality that I’ve seen, especially when that sexuality is misunderstood or aberrant, finding similar footing to the earlier films of Catherine Breillat albeit much more whimsical and less concerned with being overtly explicit.
For a film that is so sexually aware, Jumbo is far from exploitative. Yes, Merlant is in various states of undress in numerous scenes, writhes naked on a tilt-a-whirl and we are treated to an oil ejaculation, but it is all rendered remarkably innocent and wrapped up in a sense of discovery that coming-of-age films seldom attain lately. This is a film that knows that coming to terms with your body, your family and your future is both complicated and, frankly, a little absurd.
For a feature debut, Wittock certainly knows how to announce herself (and she also wrote the screenplay) with an assured visual style and a fearlessness that is admirable. For a film that plays out like Crash meets Amélie, it’s a miracle that it works as well as it does, but Wittock and Merlant make for an inspired team. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time they work together.