Definitely one of the ‘buzzy’ films of Sundance 2020 before the festival even started, simply from having such a crazy-sounding concept – Jumbo ends up being much more than it’s ridiculous-sounding premise. This is largely down to the central performance by Noemie Merlant – fresh from one of the most critically-acclaimed films of recent months – Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Merlant plays a totally different role here, selling the central conceit with absolute conviction and really gets to show her range within this one film. Writer-director Zoe Wittock makes her feature debut with a risky and bold subject-matter, as well as executing the ideas with flair and style.

So what is the idea at the heart of Jumbo? It tackles the phenomenon of objectophilia, objectum sexuality and animism – sexual and/or romantic attraction to inanimate objects. There have been several documentaries tackling this controversial subject, most famously Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008). Merlant plays Jeanne – a lonely and socially awkward young woman in her late twenties who still lives with her mother. She has a summer job at a local fairground/amusement park, which involves her staying behind at night after the park is closed to clean up. A new attraction comes to the park, which she nicknames Jumbo and Jeanne starts to believe it is ‘coming alive’ and communicating with her. As her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) tries to push her towards men, particularly her boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon), Jeanne is drawn more and more towards Jumbo and falls in love with ‘him’.

The way that the ‘character’ of Jumbo is shot by cinematographer Thomas Buelens, combined with the production design of the ride itself by William Abello makes us see him as Jeanne does – as something magical, otherworldly and full of wonder. There are touches of Close Encounters of the Third Kind here – in terms of Jeanne’s obsession and also the UFO-like quality of Jumbo. The sound design combined with the score by Thomas Roussel also makes Jumbo come alive, with a booming, all-consuming soundscape that overwhelms Jeanne and the audience. The score moves from tinkly electronic sounds that emulate the eerie childlike tunes that play at fairgrounds, to romantic lush strings which reflect Jeanne’s feelings for Jumbo. The technical aspects combine to make the audience experience Jumbo as Jeanne does and Wittock skilfully centres Jeanne’s point of view.

The detailed quality of the production design is not just limited to the theme park, however. The home that Jeanne shares with Margarette has a claustrophobic feel and Jeanne has created a haven in her bedroom – filled with coloured lights and intricate working metal models of fairground rides. Bercot is excellent as Jeanne’s mother. She craves the attention and company of men and assumes that Jeanne must want the same things she does. Sam Louwyck (who was brilliant in the totally different role of The Capitaine in one of the best films of 2018 – The Wild Boys) gives a tender performance as Margarette’s boyfriend Hubert, who is one of the few people to actually listen to Jeanne.

Wittock masterfully juxtaposes two sex scenes which illuminates one of the reasons why Jeanne may be the way she is. The first is with her boss Marc and is a starkly discomforting experience, clearly showing that Jeanne just goes through with it because she thinks it’s something she should do to appear normal. The framing and blocking of this scene keeps the audience at a distance – we are not sharing a beautiful experience with Jeanne, but rather observing a uncomfortable scenario play out. The ‘sex’ scene that involves Jumbo could not be more different. It takes place in a white, brightly lit space and involves black oil, which sounds like it should be cold and remote. It is a beautiful avant-garde interlude. However, Merlant’s performance and the intimate way it is shot by Buelens means that we are drawn in and can clearly see the effect this is having on Jeanne.

The love story is never played for laughs and Wittock’s script, combined with Merlant’s utter sincerity will make you believe fully in this unorthodox relationship. It seems entirely believable that those who struggle with intimacy with people could displace their feelings into “inanimate objects with a soul that sticks to our soul.” It is a safe place where they won’t be questioned, judged, challenged or made to do anything they’re uncomfortable with. This performance, combined with Portrait of a Lady on Fire has cemented Merlant as one of the most exciting actors emerging from Europe. Zoe Wittock’s writing confirms that is absolutely one to watch, as she has proven that she can delicately balance difficult elements sensitively here. Wittock’s direction also demonstrates a command of both the visuals and the sound of film, confirming her as a confident new voice in European cinema.

Rating: ★★★★