When AlloCiné set off to meet Zoé Wittock and Noémie Merlant to talk about Jumbo on Friday March 13, 2020, no one suspects that France, like so many other countries, will enter a long period of confinement a few days later. Covid-19 forces, the cinemas close and the release of the film is canceled at the last moment. A frustration for this team, proud to present a first feature film both touching and provocative. Screened for the first time at Sundance film festival in January 2020, Jumbo subsequently traveled to various festivals, such as the Berlinale, where he won the Guild Film Prize, and the Gérardmer international fantasy film festival.
Inspired by a true story, the film follows the fate of Jeanne, an introverted young woman, who will fall in love with a fun fair attraction. But to live her love story in broad daylight, she will have to face the gaze of others, starting with that of her possessive mother, played by Emmanuelle Bercot. While Jumbo finally arrives on the screens this July 1, 2020, meeting with the Belgian director who is hidden behind this singular romance.
César 2020, Portrait of the girl on fire …: Noémie Merlant speaks
AlloCiné : The idea for the film was inspired by the fate of Erika Eiffel, an American objectophile, who married the Eiffel Tower in 2007. What did you like so much in this crazy story to make it your first film?
Zoé Wittock: I read this article on Erika Eiffel, which is a real news story, and inevitably, it jumped out at me. A week later, I was talking about it everywhere around of me and I had a progressive curiosity. I wanted to know who this person was. I understood it at a posteriori, but I think the act of marriage was so strong that it really surprised me. He’s a self-absorbed person. I contacted her, we chatted a lot and to be honest, I was expecting someone strange, disturbing, but she had a very Cartesian spirit, with a lot of perspective on herself. I was facing a human, like you and me, who doesn’t bother anyone. There was such a gulf, between what you can think of her and who she really is, that I thought it was worth making a film of it. It’s a very emotional love story and I could, strangely, identify with it. It was my mission with Jumbo, that we can identify with Jeanne, the character, despite her story.
Why did you choose a fairground attraction?
The Eiffel Tower we think directly of a phallic object, I found it reductive and in addition it is very static. And then, casually, I’m not a big fan of the Eiffel Tower (laughs). In the fairground attraction, there is a more fun, more colorful side and it is a vector of sensations. I looked for other items, but the ride was obvious to me.
He is the second actor in the film and as with any actor, there is a casting. How did you find it?
When your main actor is a machine, there is no language, no border, so you can search around the world. Thanks to the internet and networks of the fairground world, we found one in the United States, but it was too complicated to transport it to Belgium, where the film was shot. Finally, a Move It 24 (the name of the attraction, note) was found in France, we were contacted and we were able to easily move it for filming.
Facing the machine, we find Noémie Merlant. What appealed to you about her?
I did not know at all Noemie Merlant. I started writing this film eight years ago andt when I chose her, three or four years ago, she had not even been nominated for the César for best female hope for The Heaven will wait. I discovered it in casting, it was very interesting and over time, it stayed in my head. Months later, I burst into tears at his performance. She is powerful, touching, she is not afraid of anything, she takes risks and she trusts, it is very important. It darkens at 200% and this is what was needed for this role: an actress who was not cold in the eyes.
The film sows confusion on many aspects: the age of the character of Joan, the time when the action takes place and especially the place. Lhe village has everything of a small American town. Was it a real desire on your part, not to create any benchmarks?
Completely, I wanted to create a tale modern fairy. And in fairy tales, there is this feeling of universality and timelessness. It was important not to be polluted by an era, nor by a particular topicality, so that the spectators could concentrate only on the history. I also made this choice with Jeanne, who is neither a child nor a woman. I wanted us to focus on the purest emotion. I didn’t want us to fall into clichés, like: “She’s sixteen, that’s normal, she’s looking for herself. “. As for the place, I wanted to situate my story in the Ardennes, because, with its large fir trees, there is a very isolated side, a basin in which Jeanne is isolated.
I did not want to impose anything, but rather to confront the spectators with their own tolerance (…)
Speaking of the character played by Noémie Merlant, the film does not dwell at any time on his psychological condition. Did you want to leave it to the viewer to make their own interpretation?
Of course, I wanted him to be free to choose, because the whole theme of Jumbo is here. It is a film that poses the question of normality, madness and judgment. I did not want to impose anything, but rather to confront the spectators with their own tolerance, their own acceptance or not, facing this person. It’s interesting that the audience reclaims that question. There is a part of me in this film too, I was very shy at the time of writing it, in a desire to find my place in society and to have the courage to assert myself. I did not want to anchor Jeanne in a madness or a clear difference and I wanted at all costs to avoid the shackles of the doctors, of psychoanalysis. It is a film that does not judge.
Jumbo summons the style of many films and many directors in its atmosphere, clike John Carpenter, with his film Christine, Xavier Dolan with the clothing look of the characters, and even David Cronenberg. Were they real inspirations for you?
It’s funny because I knew John Carpenter, of course, but I had never seen Christine. It’s my producer who told me about it, but I didn’t want to see it before the writing was finished so as not to be influenced. I finally watched some passages and indeed, some scenes corresponded enough. Crash of David Cronenberg, also, I hadn’t seen it at the time either. I think these artists also draw on their own references, but in this film, I tried to think of emotion and how I wanted to visually transpose it. At the time of production, I had in mind Meetings of the third type, E.T. the extraterrestrial, for this very atmosphere Amblin, Xavier Dolan also you were talking about, Red and Blue of Krzysztof Kieślowski and The Place Beyond Tea Pines for the sets. But in writing, I like to stay free and neutral.
As you say, Jumbo is about acceptance, difference, love, but it’s also a film that destabilizes the public. Is that what you are looking for in the cinema?
I like films that take me elsewhere, whether I am told about everyday life or not. Films which take me into a universe, a madness, which are coming draw in the extraordinary. The film that taught me the power of cinema was Stanley Kubrick’s Mechanical Orange. I went to see him at the cinema, with my father, at the age of sixteen. That’s all I look for in a movie. It is visceral, shocking, disturbing, but so important, because it is accompanied by a debate, a reflection, and that’s what makes society change.
Interview conducted on Friday March 13, 2020.
Check out the trailer for “Jumbo” …:
… and his soundtrack, composed by Thomas Roussel: