Tall, dark and handsome? The crush that Noémie Merlant’s character, Jeanne, explores in “Jumbo” is one out of three: a 25-foot-tall carnival ride who seduces the amusement park janitor as she spit-cleans his bulbs. During the night shift, Jumbo literally lights up Jeanne’s life, and while he’s not handsome in the traditional sense — especially to the girl’s aghast mother — when writer-director Zoé Wittock admires his whirling spirals, he’s an undeniable attraction (albeit one Jeanne must share with 32 other thrill-seekers at a time).
In Wittock’s slender fable, the feeling might even be mutual. At midnight, when the couple is alone, Jumbo appears to communicate in grumbles and blinks — green for yes, red for no — as his radiant center pulses like a schoolboy’s heartbeat. Merlant, fingers tickling crystalline notes on Jumbo’s glass knobs, gazes back in awe. Her wide eyes look as full of longing as they did in Merlant’s breakthrough performance as the infatuated painter in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” making the French actress the new queen of frustrated passions.
If one instead thinks of “E.T.” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Wittock is forgiven for cribbing the techniques Steven Spielberg perfected when shooting the bond between humans and non — though an erotic scene between Jeanne and Jumbo that drips with oil and desire is all hers. There, the tone elevates from off-kilter indie to surrealistically lush as Wittock floods the screen with impossibly deep pools of grease. Kudos to cinematographer Thomas Buelens for lighting the ripples as Jeanne licks a spill.
Objectophilia — lust for the inanimate — is real. In 2013, a Florida woman married a Ferris Wheel named Bruce, after a three-decade courtship. More famously, objectum sexuality spokeswoman Erika Eiffel, took her spouse’s last name, and when she separated from the Parisian tower, rebounded with the Berlin Wall. To justify their lifestyle, the community points to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” author Victor Hugo, who wrote “to give the great bell in marriage to Quasimodo was to give Juliet to Romeo.”
Two centuries after Hugo’s Gothic romance — itself a love letter to the grand cathedral — bells have more competition. Today, all sorts of objects clatter and plead for attention, including Jeanne’s cellphone, which nearly causes her to slip off her boyfriend’s fulcrum before the machine lowers her down like Superman rescuing Lois Lane. “Jumbo’s” production design, by William Abello, is riveted by how thoroughly modern humans have divorced themselves from their natural instincts. At Jeanne’s home, the peas are canned and the flamingos are plastic, and the wallpaper printed with leaves and flowers is a wan mimicry of vegetation. (The film’s look is so exacting, even a stitched alligator on a polo shirt feels like scorn.) Her single mom Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) screeches at birds to “shut up!” underneath a dim summer sun that appears to have abdicated its duties to disco balls and fluorescents. With Margarette lamenting that her vibrator would have made a better father than Jeanne’s mystery dad, can she blame her daughter for swooning over a pylon?
Wittock floats the absent dad as an explanation for Jeanne’s affair. As the theory goes, the poor girl’s simply never known male attention. Other causes might be a mental disorder Margarette refers to in passing, or Margarette herself, whose blowsy, embarrassing hunger for her disappeared ex might have wired her daughter to depend only on things that can be bolted to the ground. Yet, the film is less interested in diagnosing Jeanne than it is in recording the emotions of her metallurgic liaison, which mostly means it spends a lot of time watching the girl smile or sob or stare silently ahead as other people, including her smitten boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon), try to interest her in homo sapiens.
That obliviousness to human behavior extends to the script. Character reactions, even scenes, sometimes feel crudely hammered together. There’s a sense that a few screws slipped while assembling the shooting schedule, especially a pack of teenage boys who occasionally storm into scenes like they’re aggrieved the movie didn’t give them a reason for being there. As for Jeanne, her mood swings prove more unpredictable than Jumbo’s gyrations. Despite Wittock’s assured first act, the film never quite convinces that machines, as Jeanne swoons, “are just like us — more complicated than you might think.” Eventually, “Jumbo” clatters to a stop with a tinny cheer for acceptance, a sugar rush of Belgian new wave music, and the sense that the audience has been taken for a bit of a ride.