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I confess that my initial interest in seeing Wetlands was to test myself. Having grown up a tomboy, my childhood was rich with experiences of proving I could withstand things other girls thought too gross or ghastly, be it horror movies or spitting contests. So when this German coming-of-age comedy roared out of Sundance with critics declaring it "the most WTF, NSFW movie of the year," I--on some level--took seeing it as not only part of my job as a critic, but also another exciting schoolyard challenge.
If you've heard of Wetlands, you either know it because of the Charlotte Roche novel on which it's based, or because of the deeply disgusting content therein. If you want your stomach tested, Wetlands will not disappoint. But beyond gross-out scenes involving menstrual blood, copious spurts of semen, and an angry (and literal) asshole, there's a purpose. Beneath thick, putrid layers of filth, director David Wnendt has made a compelling and complex portrait of girlhood. I'll step you through the film's grossest moments to illustrate why they matter.
Wetlands follows the rocky and, at times, repulsive journey of 18-year-old Helen Memel (the fearless, funny and flawless Carla Juri). The product of a broken home, Helen's teen rebellion is channeled against all that her mother holds dear, which means the sanctity and sanity of her vagina. Helen gleefully experiments with sex and drugs, but also makes her body a biological experiment, reveling in bad hygiene. But when a shaving accident lands her in the hospital with an anal fissure, Helen strives to bring love into her life through a flirtation with a male nurse, and a childish scheme to reunite her divorced parents.
Now to the grisly bits.
Some spoilers for Wetlands lie ahead, but I'm careful to avoid major ones that would ruin the experience. Also, the movie can be tough, so if you are a squeamish person, bail now.
Helen's Hemorrhoids and Angry AssholeWhat Happens: In the film's opening moments, Helen zings down a street on a skateboard, barefoot and picking at her butt. She explains she has relentless hemorrhoids. Later, their pain is made worse when a sloppy shave job slashes Helen's anus. We're spared a look at both of the above, but the drops of blood and this look of shock (above) are more than enough to jolt viewers.
Why It Matters: Wetlands is being praised for being a movie that dares to give a girl's coming-of-age story the gross-out comedy treatment. But Helen takes your humped apple pie, and raises you a seminal slice of pizza. We'll get to that. The first tip to audiences that this is not your typical girlhood tale lies in Helen's hemorrhoids. No coveted ensembles or impossibly cool friends for her. Instead she has hemorrhoids, a dirty secret she's quick to share, telling us she is not the lady society would wish her to be. And while she may cave to contemporary shaving trends, this too had a dirty anecdote that involves a taboo sexual tryst.
Contaminating Her CrotchWhat Happens: In the Wetlands pink-band trailer, Helen earns her first gags when her bare feet take her into what appears to be the world's foulest bathroom. The floor is littered with debris, and glistening with a slick layer of unknown liquids. The toilet seat she finds within is covered with mysterious stains, and stray pubic hairs. Just the idea of sitting on this would cause some people to seek a shower. But Helen plops her lower lips down, and rubs them around the full ring of the bowl.
Why It Matters: With the same kind of swerving tracking shots that show Helen's joyful skateboard ride, the camera swerves into the stains on the toilet to a microscopic close-up of a tiny world vibrant with disease. This move ties together skateboarding and her experiments as a ride Helen finds exhilarating. But her desire for the latter runs deeper.
"My mother told me it's hard to keep a pussy really clean," Helen explains to us in voiceover. "So I turned myself into a living hygiene experiment." Like many teens, Helen has no wish to be like her mother. For Helen, this not only means rejecting the rigorous cleaning her mother instructed her in, but also exposing herself to the germs her mother fears. She later explains the chain of unhappy women her family line has begat. Helen will break this chain by testing her limits and diving into depravity.
Swapping TamponsWhat Happens: Lots of women have lent a friend a tampon. But I'd bet all of these instances entailed one of an unused, still-in-the-wrapping variety. Helen and her BFF Corinna exchange used--and judging from the saturation--useless tampons. Then they smear their blood on each other's smiling faces.
Why It Matters: Despite its shocking specifics, these two are engaging in a very old--and hopefully obsolete--test of friendship. They call themselves blood sisters. But instead of smashing scraped knees or elbows together, they swapped swamped tampons. The squick factor is high, but the intention is a sign of loyalty in that kind of frenzied, possessive way that is unique to teen girls. This scene makes the stakes of a later conflict resonate all the more.
Jizzed-On PizzaWhat Happens: Helen shares a slice and a stomach-churning urban legend with her crush, the good nurse Robin. Stop me if you'v heard it. Two girls order a pizza. When it doesn't come, they call the shop repeatedly to complain. Finally it arrives, but it tastes "funny." You see, the special ingredient in this sauce is semen from four aggravated pizza store workers. It's imagined creation is shown, sparing no detail.
Why It Matters: In execution, this sequence is vile yet hilarious as the peak moment comes to a classical music crescendo. And that's part of the point. Helen is telling this story for the same reason a similar variant is told all around the world. The urban legend is meant to make her seem mature and daring. But because it's Helen, who must push the limits at every turn, she goes further, telling Robin she wants to eat that pizza. Her lust for life knows no limits or decency. But this grinning nurse who helps her sneak beers and pizza doesn't seem to be bothered by that one bit.
Angry Asshole RevisitedWhat Happens: When Helen gets to the hospital, a blasé doctor informs her that they will have to cut away a piece of her anus. Helen demands to keep it. Later, when the "infectious material" is returned to her, she's given a stern warning about how to handle it. Her eventual plan for it is both irreverent and inkeeping with her desire to spread her gospel of anti-hygiene.
Why It Matters: For a while, Helen keeps this loosed piece of herself to herself. She explains that she hates to think of a part of her being thrown away. She is who she is flaws and all. She's not ashamed. She's not afraid. In fact, she's game to share even this ugliest bit of herself. Though not in a way most would welcome. (Sorry for vagueness here, but this bit is too wild to spoil.) Yet this bit of buttonhole changes meaning once she's let it go. It goes from a part of her, to a part of her past, tying to a turning point in Helen's journey to adulthood. Sometimes growing up means letting go.
Summation: In squick value there's "sexual bubblegum," unflattering selfies, and experimentation in scatplay. Yet there's more to Wetlands than its do-you-dare appeal.While I watched this movie to test my nerves, I was delighted to find tangled in all the semen and sick there was a surprisingly relateable and poignant story of a girl growing up. Her teenage rebellion may be less conventional than most, but her wishes for love and security keep us bound to Helen even when her eccentricities disgust us.
Carla Juri brings an incredible depth and charm to Helen. And director David Wnendt infuses this story with a punk rock energy and playful sensibility that blend with thoughtful cinematography, surreal sequences and a candy-colored world of grime. The result is gross yet glorious, profane yet poignant. In short: dare yourself to dive in to Wetlands. It's revolutionary, wild, and unforgettable.