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Noémie Merlant on Sundance Player ‘Jumbo,’ Feature Directorial Debut ‘Mi Lubita’

French actor Noémie Merlant plays a young woman who falls in love with a funfair ride in Zoé Wittock’s “Jumbo,” which is screening in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Variety spoke to her about the film, and her debut feature as director “Mi Lubita.”

Merlant is viewed as one of the most promising actors of her generation. She was nominated for the Cesar’s Most Promising Actress award in 2017 for her role in “Le Ciel attendra,” and in 2019 was jointly nominated (with Adèle Haenel) as Best European Actress in the European Film Awards, for her role in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

Merlant says that her role in “Jumbo” was a major challenge because she knew very little about the theme of objectum sexuality – the sexual attraction focused on inanimate objects – and had to research for the role, for example by watching Agnieszka Piotrowska’s 2018 documentary “Married to the Eiffel Tower.”

“The main initial challenge was to find sincerity,” explains Merlant. “It’s ultimately always a challenge to create a relationship, and I found that it could actually be easier with an object because my character was projecting so much of herself onto this silent partner. She falls in love with its material existence, color and nature. There’s a great deal of contemplation in the relationship. It’s something very peaceful.”

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“Jumbo” is produced by Anais Bertrand of Insolence Productions, who is also producing the 26-minute short “Shakira,” directed by Merlant, about a young gypsy woman who tries to integrate into mainstream French society.

Merlant’s directing career began in 2017 with the 3-minute short “Je suis une biche” (I Am a Pet), shot for the Nikon Film Festival.

“Shakira” is about a young gypsy woman, played by Catalina Danca, who falls in love with a young gypsy man, played by Gimi-Nicolae Covaci, who is a member of a gang, and leads her toward a life of crime.

“I made ‘Shakira’ with a few friends from a gypsy community on the outskirts of Paris I met a few years ago,” explains Merlant. “We don’t see enough films involving this community. Gypsies in France, and all around the world, suffer a great deal of racism and prejudice. I wanted to share what I was seeing. Of course I would be even happier if the film was directed by a gypsy.”

Merlant says she involved her friends from the gypsy community as much as possible in both the acting roles and also production roles, such as catering, and set design. As well as directing, she also plays a minor role in the short.

“They liked the idea of being actors. They’re not comfortable with documentaries about their community. They are willing to reveal greater intimacy in fiction than in a documentary. Fiction is more playful and joyful. They can express more of their own experiences.”

Merlant recently shot her first feature film, “Mi Iubita” (which means “My Love” in Romany). It’s a self-financed micro-budget production lensed in Romania with a tiny crew and a small cast including Covaci, who co-wrote the script with her. Merlant also plays the female lead, who is about to get married and goes on a pre-nuptial trip with a group of girlfriends to Romania, where she meets a young gypsy man, played by Covaci, who has travelled from France to see his family. Her character becomes trapped in a house and needs his help to escape.

Merlant is editing the feature and hopes to complete it for a possible festival release later this year.

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