Film of the Week: Wetlands
In 2008, Charlotte Roche—a British-born, German-raised TV presenter—shocked Germany with a book about women’s bodies and dissident hygiene. Her novel Wetlands became a best-selling succès de scandale, its German title Feuchtgebiete roughly meaning “damp areas” and referring to its heroine’s nether regions, front and back. The narrator is 18-year-old Helen, whose lifestyle is a militant affront to traditional German ideals of cleanliness and female propriety. Joyously upfront about her sexual activity and erotic sovereignty over all her applicable orifices, Helen wages guerrilla war against society on the level of hygiene—her discourse a celebratory hymn to her holes and everything that comes out of them, or goes in, liquid and solid alike.
Roche’s profile as a spiky-but-unthreatening TV personality, together with the book’s emphasis on bodily emissions and the erotic and expressive primacy of the anus, made her at once a heroine and a figure of horror in Germany, and Wetlands a publishing sensation. However, English-language critics were skeptical about the book’s supposed radicalism, some of them pointing out that Roche’s taboo-breaking provocations were hardly new but only revisiting terrain already widely mapped in feminist writing and culture. And for that matter, feminist punk pioneers the Slits were cheerfully talking in interviews about knicker stains back in the early Eighties.
I haven’t read the novel, but the film adaptation by David Wnendt strikes me as being as close to The Slits’ shock-comedy aesthetic as to anything else (in this spirit, the end credits feature a song by later femme-punk practitioners Thee Headcoatees, “Cum Into My Mouth”). Wnendt’s film starts by quoting an angry reader’s letter to German right-wing tabloid Bild, complaining that Roche’s book “shouldn’t be read or adapted to film.” But however inflammatory and shocking Wetlands may have been to its original readers—there were reports of fainting at Roche’s live readings—I doubt that many people will either swoon or cross themselves in horror when they see the film. Audiences won’t be that shaken, and they may even not be that amused or stimulated; still, I doubt they’ll be too bored either.
The film begins with a cheeky extreme close-up of what looks like either cleavage or an ass. In fact, it turns out to be Helen’s bent knee as she skateboards down the street—a fooled-ya! shot that sets the tone for Jakub Bejnarowicz’s breezily playful camerawork. Helen (Carla Juri) confides in voiceover that she has always been prone to hemorrhoids and, plagued by her rebellious bowels, skates to a nearby toilet—one so grubby it makes the notorious stall in Trainspotting look Swiss by comparison—where she wades barefoot through murky, ankle-high cloacal fluids. That’s not all: in defiance of prissy caution, Helen makes a point of rubbing her crotch on toilet seats, the dirtier the better, proudly declaring that she’s never yet caught anything nasty that way. That’s when Wnendt unleashes his big SFX moment: a shot that swoops in on a stray public hair on an hyper-grubby enamel rim, then zooms down into the microscopic realm, into a digital fantasia of fanged, snapping microbes and curling tendrils—a Bosch-like jungle nightmare echoing the opening credits of Fight Club, with its similar theme-park ride through the human brain.
Yet the horror comes across as cheerfully innocent, even childlike. Wetlands is framed as a voiceover confessional, with angelic-looking Helen describing her fascination with her body and its emissions, and her commitment to making herself a “living pussy hygiene experiment.” She appreciates it when her “pussy mucus” smells of cottage cheese, relishes her sticky fingers after jerking off a boy (“My sex souvenir chewing gum”), and undertakes quasi-scientific masturbation experiments with vegetables in the bath (a little too whimsically, she’s shown not only writing notes while she does it, but sometimes wearing a swimming mask too).
Scripted by Wnendt and Claus Falkenberg, this episodic film gives us assorted scenes from Helen’s sexual career, including a languorous session with co-worker Kanell (Selam Tadese), who invites Helen over to shave various parts of her body; the most conventional softcore sequence in Wetlands, tinged with stereotypical eroticism (Kanell is apparently Arab), it wouldn’t be out of place in a film named Deutsche Emmanuelle. There’s also an episode in which, out of curiosity, Helen visits a brothel and goes down on one of the hookers—although this is a story she tells to arouse a potential lover, and as she notes, “I often mix up reality, lies, and dreams.” That, of course, is an easy out for the “anything goes” factor in this film, in which we’re never certain whether we’re on solid ground or in the area of pure fantasy.
What does seem reliable in Helen’s narrative is the matter of her rectal woes. Following an anal shaving misadventure (three words I never expected to use in a review), she ends up in a proctology ward, under the care of handsome young nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski) to whom she takes a fancy. Helen decides that her hospitalization represents an opportunity to reunite her divorced parents, and fantasizes about them falling in love again by her bedside.
This is the most unsettling thing about Wetlands, and one that has troubled Roche’s critics. On one level, Helen appears to be the consummate liberated heroine, who as a result of her intelligence and experience has adopted a confrontational stance towards repressive norms. The film is most classically Punk Feminism 101 in those scenes where Helen helps enlighten her gauche friend Corinna (Marlen Krause), who becomes her menstrual blood sister when they trade tampons (of Helen’s own homemade design).
Yet the story keeps telling us that whatever’s going on with Helen, it’s because she’s been messed up by her parents. It’s one thing to give us flashbacks to the squeaky-clean, mentholated-blue childhood that she later rejects, quite another to suggest that her rebel spirit is dysfunctional, the product of emotional scarring. Her mother (Meret Becker) is an irredeemably repressed neurotic who has flirted with all conceivable religions and now settled on “the strangest of all,” as Helen calls it—Catholicism. Once the backstory emerges, revealing a traumatic crisis in the family’s history, it appears that Helen’s discontents and eccentricities can be laid at the doorstep of that classic horror figure, the hysterical mother.
As for Dad (Axel Milberg), he is initially presented as a sad middle-aged lothario, dating women of his daughter’s age. But as we, and Helen, get to know him (weirdly, she has reached 18 without any idea of what he does for a living), he emerges as an affable burgher, a little distant but essentially caring. He even brings Helen a hemorrhoid pillow in hospital: what greater parental love is there? The only point at which the parents together are truly depicted as nightmarish is during a dinner party at which they and the guests sample a turducken—that baroquely excessive mise en abyme of assorted poultry, which in a way reflects the film’s own story-within-story structure (and I’d guess that the bilingual Roche was thinking of wordplay on “turd”).
For all its studied raunchiness and underlying emotional grimness, Wetlands is irrepressibly breezy, both stylistically and in the way it presents its heroine—an anarchic freewheeling spirit who, while in hospital with an arse in critical condition, orders beer and pizza. Talk about incorrigible! Still, Wetlands gets away with its somewhat self-congratulatory tone by casting Swiss actress Carla Juri, whose golden ingénue looks and mischievous smiles at once have you believing in Helen and at the same time serve notice that Juri herself is relishing the whole thing as a knowing romp. That the actress is 12 years older than her character is never jarring, but comes across as another touch of cartoonish stylization. The tone of her voiceover can be coy, but Juri’s wide-eyed candor—she can be funny even while Helen’s in agony—let us in on the joke in a way that’s immensely appealing. I was trying to think who Juri reminded me of, and realized that it was Emily Lloyd, who played a rather more troublesome teenage rebel in 1987’s Wish You Were Here—one whose battle cry, appositely, was “Up yer bum!”
Not many recent films have so single-mindedly relied on disarming us with the charm of its lead actress, and the closest comparison that comes to mind is one about a French child-woman who, in her wide-eyed and eminently hygienic sexlessness, is virtually Helen’s polar opposite. Yes, you could call Wetlands the anal anti-Amélie, but—although Wnendt is nowhere near as stylistically pedantic—this film has a certain Jeunet-like flamboyance that you’ll either love or hate. There are freeze-frames with captions naming the characters, lurid lighting effects, plenty of abrasive music choices, the odd visual pun—like a daydream of Helen’s represented by a bubble literally bursting—and such visual exuberance as a shot that goes careering along with Helen as she skates bare-assed down a hospital corridor. It’s all efficiently breezy pop stuff—which is to say “fresh” in a rather Nineties way, a warmed-up derivative of Danny Boyle and Run Lola Run. And, as such, it contrives to be consistently entertaining and likeable.
Yes, likeable. As an object of scandal—the poster blurb, from Buzzfeed, dubs it “the most WTF, NSFW movie” at this year’s Sundance—Wetlands hardly represents serious competition to von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, say, or Catherine Breillat’s A Real Young Girl, which explored similarly sulfurous material back in 1976. Much of the scatology simply comes across as boisterous ribaldry (a very Teutonic symphony of rumbles and farts emerging from Helen’s gut), not that far from the routine content of today’s mainstream comedies, which never seem to be complete without at least one bowel catastrophe. The sterner stuff, while perhaps horrifying on the page and in the imagination, will simply have cinema audiences crinkling their noses and going “Ewww…”, no more than that. Take what’s ostensibly the film’s most outré scene: Helen pukes into a toilet bowl, only to find a large rat swimming in it. She picks up the rat (Eww!) and takes it home to tend it in a cage (Ahh!). Wnendt’s film domesticates its more troublesome themes in much the same way.