Do you love your car? Or do you, um, love your car? And what if it loved you back?
“Jumbo,” a movie inspired by the real-life woman who married the Eiffel Tower, claiming she’d fallen passionately in love with it, is Belgian writer-director Zoé Wittock’s fractured fairy tale of a feature debut about a withdrawn young woman played by “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Noémie Merlant, who develops deep emotional feelings for her local park’s newest passenger-spinning, brightly illuminated ride.
While it’s easy to imagine filmmakers from all parts of the outcast-fantasy firmament responding with glee at the cinematic doorways waiting to be opened if “Jumbo” shows post-festival life — Spielberg, Cronenberg, start your human-loves-thing engines! — Wittock’s film is ultimately more of a well-intended melodramatic experiment than a fully realized love story about one of the more curious corners of humanity’s sexual-psychological tapestry.
Object sexuality is a documented subject, after all — albeit still questioned as to whether it’s a pathology/kink or a biological reality with ties to autism’s particular brain wiring — and Wittock makes no bones about treating her coming-of-age scenario as no different than any other tale of love built in secret and intimidated by intolerance. That may rub some people the wrong way, but Wittock’s commitment level to her story as a dramatic, and even occasionally humorous, case for empathy and imagination is considerable, and likely to make for interesting post-viewing conversations once everyone gets their nervous smiles (and jokes) out of the way.
Shy and socially awkward, Jeanne (Merlant) lives at home with her extrovert divorcee mom Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), a sexually free-spirited bartender who’d love nothing more than to see her hermit-like daughter hook up with a man. When Jeanne starts work as a night-shift cleaner at the local amusement park and unwittingly attracts the attention of a kind-faced but insistent young male employee (Bastien Bouillon), it delights mom no end, even as it causes Jeanne discomfort.
In the sanctity of her room, though, where she can escape human contact, Jeanne indulges what most excites her — a connection with inanimate objects that sees her creating miniature wire-sculpture versions of theme park rides, illuminated by colored lights that create a private-space canopy of sorts.
It’s a fascination that finds its most consequential pull at her job, where she starts eyeing the gleaming new Tilt-a-Whirl (called Move It) with something like heart-palpitating, nervous attraction as she spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning it (yes, knobs are lovingly polished), then talking to it, then dreaming about it, and eventually bringing herself to sexual release with it in quasi-fantastic reveries that Wittock films with plenty of nudity and gallons of dripping, pooling machine oil. Even more alarming, the mechanized behemoth responds like a turned-on boyfriend, through hydraulic movement and red (for no) and green (for yes) lights.
To Jeanne, machines have souls, and Jumbo, as she calls “him,” becomes her first love, inspiring no small amount of consternation in her mom when she finds out, and the requisite — ahem — rollercoaster of emotions when the opportunity to spend time with Jumbo is threatened. She finds an unlikely ally, however, in mom’s gruff new boyfriend Hubert (Sam Louwyck, “Bullhead”), who takes a love-is-love view that ultimately factors into how everything is resolved.
It’s a lot to digest as a love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name story, and Wittock can’t always wrangle her “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” meets Cronenberg’s “Crash” mix of otherworldly feeling, erotic awakening, and anthropomorphic romance into something cohesive and charged. It helps, however, that Merlant is her lead, as she whips up a heady brew of nervousness and sensuality, and eventually stand-by-her-machine righteousness and even lovestruck anger.
Bercot has a deceptively hard role — the reactor in a scenario like this typically does — but what’s deep-set in her vivacious if oppressive mom is effortlessly conveyed. As for Jumbo’s presence as an oscillating, heaving and spiraling scene partner, Wittock and cinematographer Thomas Buelens keep a certain mystery to his “consciousness” that makes for a kind of psychological suspense as it relates to Jeanne’s state of mind, but the filmmaker’s attempts to imbue the Jeanne-Jumbo scenes with the requisite mix of wonder and woolliness are more likely to spark titters than transcendence.
The best one can say about “Jumbo” is that in its bid for a new romantic extreme it spins with abandon, which makes it watchable if not exactly compelling as something you can get swept up in, too.
“Jumbo” opens Friday in selected theaters and streaming on demand.