Wetlands means to shock you. It is a film obsessed with the boundless potential of our own bodies to disgust us. Blood, piss, shit, spit, sperm, mucus, snot — these all make their requisite appearances throughout the film, and each is put to gleefully repellent use. Director David Wnendt starts at 11 on the gross-out scale — one of the very first shots has the protagonist rubbing her vagina on a disgusting, mucus-encrusted public toilet seat — and only keeps notching it up from there, climaxing (har har) in a certain scene with a pizza that you won’t be discussing around the family dinner table any time soon.
The film revolves around 18-year-old Helen (Carla Juri, in a performance that, unlike most of the awards-baiting weepfests to which this word usually gets applied, can legitimately be called “brave”), a punk who has turned her body into a self-described “pussy hygiene experiment.” She is truly a scholar of her own vagina, fascinated with its mucuses, performing detailed studies of which vegetables are most suitable for masturbation, and just generally letting it ferment so as to produce a male-attracting scent noticeable even to random passers-by. When Helen nicks her hemorrhoid-afflicted anus while shaving (a momentary lapse of hygienic judgment), she is taken to the hospital, where she starts to fall for hunky nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
As portrayed by Carla Juri, Helen is a force of nature, a true punk with an uncompromising sense of her own body. Wetlands is at its best when it uses Juri’s body to communicate this, such as scene in which Helen, clad in bright pink panties, lying face-down in her pillows, crooking her arm back and plunging her finger deep into her butthole to scratch her hemorrhoids. It’s an image that perfectly captures Helen’s nonchalant but not entirely untroubled relation to her own body.
Unfortunately, images like this are more the exception than the rule. While no one could fault Wnendt for lacking guts in terms of content, his filmmaking often lacks the courage of its convictions. Rather than placing Helen in a realistic world, where her peculiar hygiene might become truly transgressive, the world of Wetlands is shallow. (Even the focus is shallow.) The characters around Helen are little more than cardboard cutouts, and, despite her out-there persona, Helen encounters surprisingly little friction from them throughout the film. Wnendt directs the dialogue in a pretty standard shot-reverse shot format, focusing on faces rather than bodies, while the gross-out sequences are done in an exaggerated color-saturated style that takes them out of the real world and somewhat robs the material of its earthy, disgusting humanity.
Even Helen herself, by far the movie’s most fully realized aspect, is slightly neutered. She’s a conventionally attractive girl with pleasantly tousled hair, well made up, with some chipping fingernail polish. She is also clearly much older than 18. We see her do gross things, but she herself never really embodies that grossness. And, in a character trait that seems calculated to psychologize and diminish Helen’s transgressiveness, her biggest wish is to see her divorced parents reunited.
But if Wnendt hasn’t quite faced up to the potentially radical implications of his own character, he has created a pretty entertaining gross-out comedy. If far-out movies were still finding an audience via midnight screenings, Wetlands would be a prime candidate. Scenes like the one in which Helen and her best friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse) trade tampons and then rub period blood on each other’s faces could kick up a hell of a scene in a late-night, half-drunk grindhouse crowd. But for all of the film’s ostensibly off-putting shock tactics, Wetlands pulls off the John Waters-ian trick of being at the same time gag-inducingly gross and likable, even sweet. In fact, Wetlands is, at heart, a crowd-pleaser.