Dir: David Wnendt
For those who used to (or still do) endlessly pick at scabs and are fascinating by their own body’s weirdness, Wetlands is a perverse romantic comedy. For germaphobes and others who fear the squickiness of bodily functions and for those who carefully lay paper down on a public toilet seat, hover, or opt to wait until home, Wetlands is a horror film of the highest degree. Either way you view it, Wetlands is a button-pushing but oddly sweet tale of one woman’s romantic travails and her at-times disturbingly gross personal hygiene. Leave it to the Germans to come up with something this wild and scheisse-obsessed.
Carla Juri stars as 18-year old Helen Memel, a free-spirited young woman who longboards through life to a beat only she can hear. As conservative parents often have hippie kids, Helen’s mother’s neat-freak tendencies have pushed her daughter in the opposite direction. Helen’s body is a living experiment – a Petri dish of bacteria scooped up from every dirty surface imaginable. She lingers on filthy toilet seats, doesn’t change her underwear for days, and generally revels in her humanness to an extreme extent. Her best friend Corinnna shares her habits, a fact made clear when they swap used tampons (after dropping them on the ground first), and then paint their faces with menstrual blood like Navajo warriors in order to cement their bond as blood sisters. Minutes into Wetlands it’s clear that those with weak stomachs need not apply.
Despite Helen’s carefree attitude, the great tragedy of her life seems to be that her parents divorced, leaving her and her younger brother adrift between a now lost mother and father (and their respective streams of dead-end partners). Opportunity knocks when Helen has a fateful shaving accident and is rushed to the hospital to repair an anal fissure. After an expectedly graphic operation given by a surly surgeon, Helen is confined to the state’s care until she has her first successful bowel movement. She intends on holding off until she can get her folks back together, making for one of the weirdest plot devices in recent memory.
It’s a nutty premise for a completely bonkers movie, but everyone involved plays it relatively straight, helping the audience swallow wildly outlandish body humour, horror and erotica. The tone of the film feels like a Danny Boyle flick for a number of reasons: Wetlands has an irrepressible energy and youthfulness, and is soundtracked to a throbbing electronic score like much of Boyle’s work; it has memorable character introductions complete with title cards and voiceover narration; and it could even pass as a feature-length version of the “worst toilet in Scotland” sequence from Trainspotting. And like Trainspotting its depiction of youth and youth culture feels rooted in reality and experience, despite occasionally surreal flights of fancy.
Fearless is an overused adjective when describing bold performances (and is often a euphemism for “gets naked a lot” when it comes to female performances), but Carla Juri is truly fearless in Wetlands. There are no half measures here and she fully commits to a role that leaps off the screen. She’s alternately vulnerable, mischievous, alluring, and hilarious, making Helen’s disgusting habits somehow endearing (which is no easy feat).
She gets a romantic subplot with her male nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), which works mostly as a charming trifle as Robin remains an underwritten saint. There’s other divergent tangents that Helen goes on too while trying to get her parents to the hospital, including: reminiscing about her childhood (laying the groundwork for her separation anxiety and hygiene issues), a drug fuelled escapade with Corinna, various sexual liaisons at work (she, of course, makes cheese), and – in perhaps the movie’s most outré sequence – a story about what disgruntled pizza makers can do to a beloved pie when pushed too far. Note to everyone: DO NOT eat pizza while watching this movie.
Near the end of Wetlands there’s a big reveal that seeks to further explain Helen’s behaviour and add shading to her parent’s relationship, providing some pop psychology to go with Wetlands’ naughty thrills. It feels forced and more than a little maudlin for a film that was until that point crackling with juvenile energy, like an exciting sleepover that takes a turn for the serious with a friend’s grave confession. The movie mostly recovers, but does leave some other plotlines dangling, quickly wrapping up one over the credits sequence. Yet despite those missteps, Wetlands still works as a transgressive ode to the body’s glory and grossness. Juri’s committed performance combined with stylized editing and a breakneck pace ensure that there’s rarely a dull moment, and in fact there’s many that will stay with you long after the credits role.