Why objectophilia is having a cinematic moment
Come as you are: new French-language films Titane, Jumbo and Deerskin are exploring a sexual attraction to… things.
A sexual fascination with cars is not exactly a new concept. The protagonists in JG Ballard’s cult 1973 novel Crash experience symphorophilia – the fetishisation of disaster – and, specifically, car-crash sexual fetishism. They get off on staging real-life car-crashes, as do the protagonists of David Cronenberg’s 1996 onscreen adaptation, chasing the erotic thrill of a crash at any cost.
If you’ve seen Cronenberg’s film, you might notice that a scene has been referenced in French director Julia Ducournau’s controversial new film Titane. In this winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, androgynous and sociopathic protagonist Alexia sits on the back seat of a car, riding the leather interior, arms pulled back, face gripped in pleasure.
Like Cronenberg’s Crash (which was banned from screening by some UK local authorities after a censorship row), Ducournau’s film is dark – both in content and palette – and gruesome in its exploration of the edges of sexual fetishism. What’s redeeming, though, about Titane is its playful implausibility, a consistent source of humour.
Like any good body horror, the basic plot is ridiculous: after a childhood car crash, Alexia has a titanium plate put into her head and grows up with a sexual attraction to cars. During a murder spree, she not only has sex with a Cadillac, but becomes pregnant with its baby.
Points for originality, yes, but Titane isn’t the only new film taking on objectophilia, the sexual or romantic attraction to objects. Recent French-Belgian film Jumbo follows the story of an introverted girl called Jeanne played by Noémie Merlant (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire). She falls in love with a ride called Move It while working at her local fairground. Expect sensual dream sequences where she immerses herself in its engine oil.
Then there’s last year’s Deerskin, written and directed by French auteur Quentin Dupieux, starring Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel (also in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire). In it, a man’s obsession with his designer deerskin jacket leads him to blow his life savings and turn to crime. All three films, to some degree, ask what happens when the love of an inanimate object challenges our ideas around desire.
Zoé Wittock, the Belgian director of Jumbo, explains that she first had the idea for the film in 2011, when she read online about Erika Eiffel, the American who famously “married” the Eiffel Tower in 2007.
“They wanted you to click and I clicked!” she laughs. “The fact that a woman would go to such a drastic extent to prove her love to something caught my attention. Talking to friends after, I found it kept pushing the debate on sexuality, love and identity. It stuck with me, so I contacted Erika.”
Over a series of emails, then video calls, the two explored Eiffel’s passion. “I was expecting her to be someone who seemed different, but she was quite average,” Wittock remembers. “At first, it was a little disappointing, but then that’s what drove my story – this idea that she’s just like us, trying to find her way. That ‘this is just a love story.’”
According to Wittock, what Eiffel said over those calls kind of made sense. She’d tried intimate relationships with men and women, but it didn’t work. Then she tried an object and that’s where she found happiness.
“She’s aware of how peculiar her choice is… but she decided to do it anyway. Any action you take in life that doesn’t suit ‘normality’ can be, I think, inspiring.”
Jumbo unspools like a traditional coming out story – the queer filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s work springs to mind (particularly in the tense relationship between Jeanne and her mother). Wittock says this feeling was deliberate. While objectophilia is not the same as queerness, it similarly challenges societal ideas about “right” and “wrong” ways of experiencing desire. The decision to feature a female protagonist was also deliberate – psychologists she talked to about objectophilia repeatedly told her that it’s more common in women than men.
While Eiffel’s attraction was focused on the Parisian landmark, Wittock decided to switch this for a fairground ride, because the Eiffel Tower is static and, as a public site and tourist attraction, would have posed challenges for shooting. Later, she heard about Amy Wolfe: an American woman with an attraction to fairground rides.
This time, Wittock decided not to contact Wolfe. “Hearing about her validated my story, but I didn’t want to make it biographical.” Instead, she wanted Jumbo to be less specific. “The story is universal because it’s about pushing against who or what people think you should be. It’s about breaking out of social norms.”
If the story is that universal, we might wonder: why is the love of inanimate objects having a moment in cinema – particularly French films – right now?
“I think there’s a reason Jumbo came out in 2020 and not 2016,” answers Wittock. “It was impossible to find financing for a film like that then, because people weren’t ready. It took time to get funders on board and accept it. But now it feels like it’s in its time.”
One reason for this is social media, claims the director, and how it exposes us to more views of outsiders and minorities – people from the bottom or the edges of society. “Because of this, we’ve been able to diversify the kind of voices and topics that are out there. It opened up conversations about different identities and sexualities, and that opened the door for Jumbo.”
While Jumbo is a kind of inquiry into the human condition, Titane seems to draw on objectophilia for shock value. As for Deerskin, it goes for novelty. But Wittock believes the films embody the current moment in Francophile cinema.
“There has been a wave of auteur films that are extremely realistic since the 2000s but I think now there’s a new desire to reinterpret fictional storytelling [more imaginatively]. I think the younger generation is interested in subject matter that transforms reality, including a new way of looking at objects, as well as asking what’s acceptable and not acceptable, real or not real.”
Beyond Julia Ducournau and Quentin Dupieux’s films, there’s the Boukherma brothers. “Their film Teddy is about a young man turning into a werewolf in rural France,” says Wittock. And there’s Just Philippot, whose film The Swan is “about a woman who starts a new business raising insects and becomes the mother of a huge swarm of crickets”.
This generation of filmmakers were brought up on American films from the ’80s (films that were more genre or plot-driven), and are more international in their influences, Wittock says. As for her own influences, she was inspired by Cronenberg’s Crash, even if she did want to create something very different tonally in Jumbo. Spike Jonze’s HER (2013) – about a man falling in love with an AI assistant (albeit one voiced by Scarlett Johansson) – was also an inspiration, plus the only film directly about objectophilia she had seen, Craig Gillespie’s Lars and The Real Girl (2007), in which Ryan Gosling plays a guy who falls for a sex doll.
For now, objectophilia is still taboo. But as with, say, masturbation 100 years ago, or S&M 50 years ago, the more we see or talk about something, the less taboo it becomes. Ten years ago objectophilia was mostly talked about in tabloids or daytime TV talk shows – now it’s the subject of award-winning films.
So how will we view it in future decades? It’s still one of the most boundary-pushing subjects in terms of sexuality and identity, but Titane, Jumbo and Deerskin seem to be asking what is so implausible about being attracted to an object. Jumbo takes it one step further, posing the question: if it exists and it’s not harming anyone, can we really question it?
“Personally, I didn’t want to explore the ‘freakiness’ of objectophilia. I wanted to bring the freakiness back to the realm of the normal, to put myself in the character’s eyes,” concludes Zoé Wittock. “I think if people can follow the story to the end and empathise for Jeanne, they might think about how they can have empathy for other people with variant sexualities or identities. [Then] they might start to go through life questioning other norms.”
JUMBO is available to watch online. You can also watch the film at your local cinema here.