'Jumbo' Review: Girl Meets Tilt-A-Whirl In This Uneven Bundle Of Quirks [Sundance 2020]

Love is confusing in Jumbo, a messy film that wants to have its funnel cake and eat it too. Set mostly at an amusement park, Jumbo follows the awkward and shy Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Noémie Merlant) who has no social skills to speak of, much to the chagrin of her constantly loud, constantly horny mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Margarette would like nothing more than for Jeanne to meet a nice guy – and one day she does. But the "nice guy" isn't a guy at all. It's a machine – a Tilt-A-Whirl that looms large over the amusement park where Jeanne works.

That's the type of attention-grabbing premise that immediately piques one's interest. Unfortunately, writer-director Zoé Wittock doesn't seem to know what to do with it. There's a lot of heavy-handed messaging here, to the point where one character flat out says, "Who cares who she loves if it's not hurting someone?" You can tell Wittock is hoping for Jumbo to be a movie about tolerance and acceptance, but the messaging is muddled.

It doesn't help that all of the characters here are caricatures. Merlant, so good in Portrait of a Lady, spends the majority of the film weeping or groaning. Merlant had an insurmountable task ahead of her: she had to convince us that she really was in love with a carnival ride. She does her best, but the script, which saddles her with dialogue like "Jumbo gave me an orgasm!", isn't doing her any favors. Bercot, as mother Margarette, is also trying her best, but she pitches everything in her performance up to 11. She's a shrill, cruel, offensive person – and that's made all the more offensive by the film's weak attempts to redeem her in the last act. Then there's Bastien Bouillon as Jeanne's boss Marc. Is he a nice guy? A total creep? Somewhere in between? Does he have actual feelings for Jeanne? Does Jeanne like him?

There was one question that kept popping into my head as I watched Jumbo: Just what does this movie want to be? It's so painfully earnest in its portrayal of unconventional love, and yet at the same time, it throws in moments of loud, over-the-top mayhem that I'm assuming is supposed to be comedic. Then there are the scenes with Jumbo, which are played out almost like a horror movie. The ride is sentient – or at least Jeanne thinks it is – and it rumbles and whirrs, making sounds similar to the heptapods from Arrival. At one point, Jumbo starts leaking oil, which may or may not represent seminal fluid – who's to say? This results in a scene that looks like it was pulled out of Under the Skin, where Jeanne finds herself in an all-white room lapping at the oil and submerging her face into the viscous fluid.

A movie that has its lead character falling in love with a machine and lapping at its oil is too unique to completely discard, and that's what makes Jumbo all the more frustrating. If this weren't such a weird bundle of quirks and genre mash-ups – is a comedy? a romance? a thriller? a fantasy? – it might be something special. One gets the sense that Wittock used Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water for inspiration, but that was a film that knew exactly what it wanted to be. Best of all, it accepted the unconventional romance at the core of its story. Recall the scene in Shape where Sally Hawkins' character informs her friend and coworker Octavia Spence that she's struck up a sexual relationship with the Amphibian Man. Not once does Spencer think this is strange – in fact, she wants the juicy details. Jumbo, in sharp contrast, wants us to know that the love between Jeanne and Jumbo is weird.

Still, Wittock has a great eye. The scenes where Jeanne stands bathed in the red and blue neon cast from the Tilt-A-Whirl are stunning, and the opening shot – a dream sequence where Jumbo rushes towards Jeanne, its wheels spinning and casting off blazing light, is magnificent. If only the rest of the film could measure up to moments like this. Jumbo is a ride that might be worth taking once, but don't be surprised if you walk away from it feeling more than a little disappointed.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10