Eighteen-year old Helen (Carla Juri) is a sexually charged girl who is obsessed with bodily secretions and thinks personal hygiene is over-rated. While her parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg) are going through a divorce, Helen ends up in hospital after cutting herself shaving. Whilst there, Helen gets together with Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Intently, jubilantly gross, Wetlands is a squeamish viewer’s nightmare. Helen (Carla Juri), 18, has an impish haircut, an antic quality that crosses Meg Ryan with Parker Posey, and, as the film opens, a hemorrhoid. Helen addresses the viewer at length, in matter-of-fact narration, about this hemorrhoid, which her aggressive shaving has exacerbated into an anal fissure. (I’m sorry, truly.) The story of the fissure’s repair, at a hospital in Helen’s native Germany, takes up the rest of Wetlands, which unfolds (and oozes, and bleeds) as a kind of Freudian comedy, a history of Helen’s morbid fixations dating back to her childhood and, in particular, her parents' divorce.
Easily the weirdest film I saw at this year’s [Sundance].
Director David Wnendt, working from Charlotte Roche’s 2008 novel, revels in the kind of body horror usually associated with Catherine Breillat, whose Anatomy of Hell followed the odyssey of a man challenged by a woman to 'watch me where I’m unwatchable." Here that man is Helen’s gorgeous nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), and the tone of their exchanges over things like anal incontinence has that particularly German blend of frank practicality and giddy fascination. Robin is somewhat improbably charmed by Helen’s exhibitionism (his girlfriend doesn’t like oral sex, which is meant to explain a lot), and colludes in a plan to reunite her parents at their daughter’s hospital bedside.
The plan fails, but Helen keeps trying. A series of flashbacks to Helen’s childhood depict two wildly self-involved parents, and a little girl who came to associate her parents’ split with the birth of her little brother. In a connection that’s implied but never well understood, she develops an obsessive relationship with her body’s fluids and functions and some desirous, desperately naïve ideas about sex. A portion of Wetlands is reminiscent of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the fabulously libidinal 2012 Norwegian coming-of-age romp. Helen seeks satisfaction in a way we rarely see young women do on screen: boldly, without fear. But as a painfully explicit metaphor involving avocado pits makes clear, sexuality’s life-giving purpose is a thorn in Helen’s womb.
Juri’s idiosyncratic performance and natural charisma save Helen from her repulsive physical abjections and go a long way to selling material that often feels less puerile than immature. Helen’s hospital reveries take her back to memories of swapping bloody tampons and hoary seduction secrets with her best friend (Marlen Kruse) and a man with a shaving fetish. She also recalls a jaunty drug bender, it seems, because this is the kind of film that requires a jaunty drug bender sequence. The point is that little of this backstory adds to a sense of Helen beyond her implausible, earthy-kewpie persona, making her darker moments in the hospital more difficult to fathom. When her jealousy is aroused Helen responds as a child would; a scene in which she deliberately harms herself in order to extend her hospital stay confirms, on the goriest possible terms, Helen’s detachment from the body that gives her so much pleasure.
Easily the weirdest film I saw at this year’s festival (rumour has it the leading rival for that title is Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices), Wetlands is rarely as much fun (or as shocking) as it wants to be. Despite Juri’s appeal, Wnendt’s interest in Helen as a kind of inverted love object further strains the film’s problems with coherence and tone, which have something to do with the difference between studying a worldly character’s eccentricities and creating an eccentric world, with its own laws and lawful characters. Wetlands does a little bit of both, if not enough of either to draw me into its sticky embrace.