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Writer/director Zoé Wittock stuns in her feature debut, “Jumbo”, the strange but captivating tale of an unconventional and misunderstood love.

My introduction to the Chattanooga Film Festival was via a general Twitter invitation from director Jill Gevargizian. Jill suggested a Tweetup while watching one of the video-on-demand (VOD) films available on the Festival’s website. Jill’s movie suggestion was the Belgian film Jumbo, the feature debut from writer/director Zoé Wittock.

Jumbo is based on the real-life story of Erica Eiffel who fell in love and married the Eiffel Tower in 2007.

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) a lonely disenchanted teenager who feels no connection to people, not even her single mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Where Margarette is openly sexual and pushing for her daughter to meet a man, Jeanne has no interest in meeting men.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jeanne would rather retreat to her room where she connects with the metal and plastic of the carnival ride models she’s built by hand.

Jeanne works the night-shift at the local carnival, which is the basis for her models. She’s seemingly oblivious to the interest of her manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon), who goes out of his way to show Jeanne he wants to date her. Marc even befriends Margarette as a means to get to know Jeanne better, much to the utter delight of Margarette and horror of Jeanne.

Jeanne seems weary of the leering stares of men (romantically or otherwise), and the insistence of her mother to date, make friends, and socialize.

When a new ride arrives at the carnival, a tilt-a-whirl ride called “The Move-It,” Jeanne begins to fixate on the new ride.

She strokes its hard metal frame, and lovingly cleans the ride’s large lights. Jeanne realizes she has a connection to this new ride, and names him “Jumbo.”

Much to Jeanne’s delight, Jumbo begins to respond to her affections. Jumbo communicates with blinking lights, and sounds that is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As she falls in love with Jumbo, Jeanne finds herself more estranged from her mother and Marc, who can’t understand her obsession with the carnival ride.

The relationship between Jeanne and her mother is problematic at best. Jeanne comes out to Margarette about her relationship with Jumbo, as Margarette begins a new relationship with a newcomer to town, Hubert (Sam Louwyck). Margarette not only rejects what Jeanne reveals, but she cruelly mocks her and throws Jeanne out of the house.

Jumbo is a sweet fantasy tale about a fractured person trying to heal through what those close to her consider an unconventional relationship.

Margarette is also dealing with her own personal issues, and she projects her own relationship problems on to Jeanne.

This story is one that can come perilously close to comical, and on the surface the movie may seem slight and ridiculous. Don’t allow fans to make this out to be a movie about fucking a machine, as did viewers who lambasted Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water and framed it as “the fish fucking movie.”

There’s a deeper story going on in JUMBO about feeling isolated, yearning for connection and understanding, and the lengths we go to be accepted for the simple act of loving someone, or in this case, something.

Jumbo, in a surprise, hit me hard.

Watching Jeanne struggle with her feelings, trying to figure out why she wasn’t like everyone else, and be hurt by the cruelness of her mother were all feelings that I strongly empathized with. I hurt for Jeanne when Margarette couldn’t understand why Jeanne loved Jumbo. But my heart leapt for joy when Jeanne finally found common ground with her mother, as well as acceptance and love.

Writer/director Zoé Wittock’s feature debut is a magical experience.

Jumbo is awash with spectacular visuals, colors, and sounds. There are scenes that echo Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Under the Skin, while also being a close cousin to The Shape of Water.

Wittock’s sure direction combined with a brilliant, elevated performance from Noémie Merlant make JUMBO one of the best and most rewarding movies I’ve seen this year.

If you let this movie into your soul and allow Jeanne’s story to sweep you away like a passenger on a tilt-a-whirl, you will find yourself falling hard for Jumbo.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4.5

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