Love can be a strange, all consuming beast. A drive that once triggered trumps all logic and reason. And while it’s often said that you can’t control who you love, perhaps, as posited in Belgian writer/director Zoé Wittock’s fantastical romance feature Jumbo, that phrase should be extended to ‘what’ you love. Inspired by the story of Olympic Gold winner and proponent of object sexuality Erika LaBrie who fell for and subsequently married the Eiffel tower, Jumbo introduces us Jeanne, a shy young woman whose fascination with the new Tilt-a-Whirl at her work soon ignites an undeniable desire she feels compelled to act on. A captivating, transgressive coming of age tale which premiered at Sundance last year and hits UK cinemas on Friday, DN spoke to Wittock about navigating the shift from shorts to feature filmmaking, sparking debate around love and questions of sexual identity and choreographing the many moving parts of her human/machine love affair.
Jumbo is your first feature, how did much of a jump did you find the move from shorts to feature development?
It was a long jump but at the same time, I guess my previous works are really what brought me the feature because it was thanks to one of my short films being selected and playing at a festival that I met the producer who decided to accompany me, Anaïs Bertrand. She was on the jury where we won the special jury prize and she loved it so much she kind of jumped on me after the awards ceremony and wanted to know more about me and the types of films I was making. At this point, I had written the first draft for Jumbo and she came right back to me wanting to work together. We decided to partner based on her enthusiasm and the kind of filmmaking that she wanted to make which was similar to mine. Then began a very long journey of development and financing and then of course production and release but I guess the longest part of it was financing especially due to the outlandish nature of the film.
Did you find yourself garnering weird receptions when looking for funding because of the concept?
Well it was funny because we would either get an amazing reception or a very questioning one. But throughout everyone was intrigued by the film and people wanted to know more. I guess it was more a matter of people being afraid of it or not being sure if they were confident enough in my filmmaking to believe it would sell the film. I think that is where my short film also helped because it was done with very few special effects yet it was fantastical and surrealist which helped to convince some of the financiers in the end. We initially had backing from some government funds for the arts that enabled us to hire Emmanuelle Bercot, a household name in French cinema, which immediately gave the film some gravitas and meant the funding process moved on from there. From the first financing to the moment that we shot the film we spent two years looking for more money and filling that gap.
With the role of Jeanne’s mother already cast, how did you go about finding Noémie Merlant?
We started casting in 2017 before she had been nominated for her role in Portrait of a Woman of Fire and I saw close to a hundred and fifty girls and up and coming actresses. I saw some great performances but I really couldn’t find the perfect one. Strangely enough, Noémie was one of the first girls that I saw and I didn’t call her back right away because she was very strong and very confident for the character. I guess I was a little afraid of that strength and performance but as the casting went on, I also started discovering the character in casting with all these different interpretations and I realized how strong my character was which led to some re-writing. I remember Noémie sticking in my mind and I called her back. When she came back, after some direction in her performance she came in and just blew it out of the park. She was amazing and she made everybody cry. I guess nobody could doubt that she was the right one after that.
They actually ended up becoming artists who were suggesting ways in which we could use the machine to express emotions.
The relationship between mother and daughter is a central theme of the film, what informed their at times fractious relationship?
This is essentially a coming of age film in terms of identity, the relationship with her mother and her sexuality. I’ve recently come to realise in my writing I’m often exploring maternal relationships and so this naturally shone through. Often in life, the mother figure is such a doomed character because it’s the person who loves you the most and stands by your side but because of her role, she is a dual character where she’s doing her best but she’ll be hated no matter what. Jeanne is in such a tricky transitional period in her life. She has the body of a woman she is not even conscious of yet, is still very childlike and feels entirely at odds with what she is feeling so to have a slightly overbearing mother felt right.
What were the practical challenges of personifying a machine with a soul that Jeanne could fall in love with?
We actually had one day of rehearsal with the machine where it was inevitably raining making for a very difficult night but it was the pinnacle of a lot of preparation and a lot of discussions between my heads of department, my production designer, and director of photography. Our priority was to ensure that the technicians who actually controlled the machine understood the speed of movement desired, the lights, the smoke and working at getting it happy or excited. It was a little bit rough at times, but we kept going back to the script and changing the choreography. They actually ended up becoming artists who were suggesting ways in which we could use the machine to express emotions. That was really one of the most fun parts of it all.
We kept Noémie out of that because we wanted her to be as surprised as we could on the first day of shooting. It took huge amounts of teamwork to make sure that the lighting, movement, speed and smoke were all choreographed at the same time as the focus of our camera. Noémie was amazing in her delivery of the script around all of these obstacles with the timing and rhythm which we would never have seen was it just in front of a green screen.
When you watch something with all these special effects and everything it’s great, but there is something so raw about when you’re actually interacting on the screen. We really wanted this to feel real in terms of the actual relationship with the machine. Touch is so important to a relationship so actually seeing the actress react to the cold metal, the rawness was incredibly important to us.
I’m assuming that tactility of their relationship was important for you to harness in the sex scene between Jeanne and Jumbo as well.
When filming such intimate scenes you often want to draw from personal experiences or those of your cast which was an obvious struggle for us. The difficulty with that scene was that I really wanted people to relate to that relationship and for that, it needed to be visual. How do you visualise that orgasm aside from just her having an orgasm with herself? How do you make that poetic and fantastical? I really felt that this infinite white which was present really early on in the drafts of the script had this beautiful purity to it that could oppose the dirtiness of the sex, balancing it all out. It’s like the rush of energy that you experience during an orgasm, your body takes over and it just feels beautiful to go to such a simple pure contrast as the infinite white.
I really wanted people to relate to that relationship and for that, it needed to be visual.
You call the film “A modern take on love and its infinite possibilities” what do you specifically want people to take away from Jumbo?
I have my own interpretation of it and I know what kind of film I wanted to make. But what I really want is for people to have an emotional journey with the characters and as long as they’ve had that I trust them to make their own judgements on the film. I want people to talk about the subject openly after the film. I don’t want to tell them this is how you should think that life should be but if you’ve stayed until the end of the film and you’ve let yourself believe in the characters then what do you feel?
I want to animate the debate around love and the questions of sexual identity and the infinite possibilities. It’s more questions and a debate that I want to start than give them the answers because I think it will push the boundaries no matter what and it will push people to face something that they don’t know. Some people have questioned the ending but I always felt like this happy ending was more transgressive than the sadder ending because one would expect a sad ending. For someone like that to go away happy is quite extraordinary and special.
What is next for you?
I’m working on films both in the US and France so I’m working both in English and French and I’ve been busy writing and you know meeting people from home for the world which is great.