An unexpected, original take on the classic tale of an outsider.
Jumbo has been selected as one of the Caledonian MacBrayne Audience Award nominees at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. The story of Noémi Merlant’s Jeanne is a classic tale of an outsider, someone who's a little “different”, teaching those around her that it is them who must learn to accept her. More unusually, in this film Jeanne’s mother must learn to accept her parasocial relationship with the fairground ride that she names Jumbo. This is writer-director Zoé Wittock’s first feature film, and hearteningly she proves from the offset a knack for the formal side of filmmaking to accompany her desire to tell stories that are a tad off-kilter.
After an opening shot that primes the viewer for the colourful hyper-realism afoot, Jeanne is introduced: she is a cleaner at an amusement park, aggravated by the bullying youths who frequent it and the creepy boss, Marc, who oversees it. Merlant affects a higher vocal range to accentuate the immaturity of her carefully underplayed dialogue – a far cry from the assuredness that she presented last year in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but just as convincing. Wittock spends little time establishing the workplace politics of employee of the year, or really much in the way of the characters of Jeanne’s colleagues; instead it is not long until we reach the main event.
Curiously – though not ineffectively – Wittock presents the thematic resonances of LGBT outsidership with the visual and auditory language of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sweeping visuals of Jumbo, with its orange-blue-red-green lighting, combine with a sonic language of bass frequencies to suggest life more often presented as the extra-terrestrial kind; contrast this with the close-ups on faces, or hands and feet, muted colour-scheme, lack of music that signals something closer to the “realism” that is such a let-down for Jeanne the rest of the time. Wittock isn’t interested in whether we see a “real” fantasy or just the subjectivity of the lead, but that doesn’t matter since she absolutely nails the formal distinguishing of the two. The sound design to suggest Jumbo’s life is so well set up, and invisibly so, that there is no conscious need to suspend disbelief when we find that “he” might have disappeared, the lower frequencies of his voice and the visual language of his movement absent. The forward propulsion in editing of the “cinematic” sequences feels completely natural, and so by contrast the awkwardness of a real human encounter between Jeanne and Marc that Wittock follows one of these with, not cutting away and watching Jeanne squirm, is all the more accentuated.
There are moments that evoked Lynne Ramsay’s eye for those world-building, poetic details in You Were Never Really Here – Wittock seems to have the same penchant for onlookers’ faces, and the thoughtfulness of holding an object versus the thoughtlessness of stubbing cigarettes into the ground (not to mention one shot of water dripping in hair, which seemed inadvertently identical). The attention to the small details – details of this world where “inanimate objects have a soul” – allows one scene, filmed in the reflection of a picture-frame’s glass, to be quietly pertinent to the sudden alienation Jeanne is feeling. When we enter into the fantasy world, Wittock eschews metaphor for purely artistic visuals; the black of oil on white, simple but exploited to maximum effect.
Merlant is supported by a well-intentioned ensemble cast, though there isn’t enough screen-time to flesh out their roles, particularly in the case of Jeanne’s mother and her new boyfriend Hubert – who is he, and why is he so nice? It is also a bit of a surprise that the actual world of the theme park, so well set-up, only returns when it becomes entirely necessary again towards the end. Marc is believably creepy, though he occasionally seems to overact in a way that starts to blur the lines between the realist and fantasy worlds too much for my liking. Even so, it feels a little odd when we move away from Jeanne’s perspective – showing the promise of better-constructed writing but perhaps conspicuous in this instance. Though these less-central characters and plot threads aren’t by any means done badly; it just seems that they fall sadly by the wayside. Certainly, there is no sense that it is necessarily carelessness rather than lack of resources. The mundanity of running costs for a fairground ride seems so perfectly counterpointed to the fairytale of a woman befriending one. Clearly, it is not that Wittock simply doesn’t care to think about these things.
As a very minor point, one could never level the same criticism at Jumbo that has been levelled recently at Sia’s film Music – Jeanne is never explicitly defined as anything more than “a bit special”, though it would perhaps be better to have been more wary of how a less-sympathetic take on Jeanne and Jumbo could be weaponised. Though this is broadly a feel-good film, I wonder if the specifics of the ending might betray a rather bleaker outlook for those who fall into the neurodivergent or LGBTQ+ groups on whom this story piggybacks. The modern-fairytale sheen to the final scenes is admirable, rejecting cynicism. Not flawless, but greatly promising.
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