[Chattanooga Film Fest Review] Jumbo Explores Extreme Empathy and Love

There’s a Joe Hill quote from Heart-Shaped Box that pops up every once in a while, that says, “Horror is not about extreme sadism, it’s about extreme empathy.” Finding that quote was like finally understanding myself. Somewhere along the line, that’s exactly what happened for me. I never stopped being afraid or grossed out, but I found a new filter to read through, and it made everything else make sense. It’s also the one lesson horror has to teach us that I think can and should be carried in and out of context. If we understand extreme empathy, we can be more connected to any story, in any genre.

This isn’t to say seeing yourself up on screen isn’t important. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary.

Extreme empathy, as I mean it here, is just allowing yourself to identify with things that, maybe in your ordinary life, you wouldn’t have the chance to. But the one thing we all need is connection, and the way to connect has always been to find pieces of yourself reflected back at you from the eyes of strangers. Writer/director Zoe Wittock’s Jumbo, is, largely, an exercise in extreme empathy framed as a rather unconventional love story. Jeanne (captivatingly portrayed by Noémie Merlant) is a shy cleaner at an amusement park. Her mom seems to want nothing more than for her to find a relationship and fall in love — or at least in orgasm — but all she wants is to care for the rides. One day, when she starts a new season at the job, she finds a new ride has been brought on. She is immediately captivated by every light and move it makes. What unfolds from her first encounter with the ride she affectionately names Jumbo is a fairy tale unlike anything before it.

It may be easy to dismiss the “shy girl meets Tilt-A-Whirl” dynamic as quirky and offbeat and leave it at that. But there is so much more going on beneath the surface. This is a love story spelled out in carnival lights. Overflowing with heart and whimsy and a magical atmosphere that immediately pulls you in, Jumbo is a queer coming of age story unlike anything before it. Jeanne tries to conform to what her mother expects from and wants for her, but the truth of what she wants for herself is too large and unbelievable to contain. It’s forbidden love at first sight.

Through the lens of extreme empathy, it’s easy to fall for Jeanne and her love for Jumbo. We find this unconventional story has incredibly important lessons to teach us. Lessons about love, family, and acceptance that are often some of the hardest learned in our real day-to-day lives. Maybe we fall on the side of Jeanne’s mother, a free-spirited uninhibited woman burying a heartbreak she doesn’t want anyone else to see, in that we think we’d accept anything until we come face to face with something so left field of our comfort zones we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around it. Maybe we fall on the side of Jeanne, falling in a love that’s new and exciting and alive but so completely outside the ordinary all we know how to articulate about it is that it makes us feel something.

An incredible feat of heartfelt technicolor storytelling, Jumbo asks us to explore what connection really means. Take a ride and forget ourselves for a while. Enter a fantastical world where any kind of love is possible, and then come away from it having seen ourselves reflected back in unexpected ways, and with deeper understanding of who we are.

No matter where in the spectrum we land, Jumbo wants us to know love isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. But it is real, and it is for everyone. Fairy tales can be as real as we want to make them.

Now playing at the Chattanooga Film Festival

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Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.

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Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.

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