Helen, the teenage subject of Wetlands, is very in touch with her—well, everything. Particularly if it’s fluid, or taboo, or considered unsanitary, or just plain disgusting. You may want to finish that popcorn before the movie starts.
Wetlands begins with text: “This book shouldn’t be read or adapted to film. It’s nothing more than a mirror of our sad society…We need God.” The condemnable book in question was written by Charlotte Roche, here co-adapted by Claus Falkenberg, Sabine Pochhammer, and director David Wnendt. We meet Helen, played by a brave Carla Juri with gleeful odiousness, scratching her hemorrhoids as she skateboards, then rubbing her labia all over a toilet seat in a filthy restroom. But a word like “labia” isn’t quite appropriate; in Wetlands, it’s “pussy,” over and over, repeated so often the slang nearly loses meaning.
Besides pushing the limits of taste, Helen’s story is about her sorrow over her parents’ divorce and the loneliness she feels as she deals with a largely absent father and a mother who’s too depressed to be truly present, either. Helen says she’s always wanted children but has had herself sterilized. From her great-grandmother to Helen herself, the women of Helen’s family have all been “neurotic, deranged, and miserable.”
Of course, teenagers can’t legally get themselves sterilized, which is the most obvious clue that Helen is quite the unreliable narrator. All the sex she’s had, all the hygiene she’s flouted, all the vegetables she’s put in all her holes: all a big “maybe.” Helen claims that she’s so close to her best friend, Corinna (Marlen Kruse), that they trade used tampons. Yes, you see it with your own eyes.
Helen may fantasize, but she’s also manipulative in reality. And this is partly why the relatively inexperienced Juri excels: When she smiles, she has the face of an angel, which counters Helen’s Bad Religion T-shirts, board shorts, and boyish hairstyle. It’s believable that the character can get what she wants. What she gets, however, is not always believable.
It’s clear that the filmmakers intended Wetlands to be a punker version of Spring Breakers. But though both revel in envelope-pushing debauchery, the latter is of far superior quality, with a dreamlike atmosphere and underlying message of emotional emptiness that Wetlands mimics while failing to achieve its crucial gravity. Instead, Wnendt’s film feels like pure exhibitionism, being repulsive only to repulse.
The second half of Wetlands takes place largely in a hospital, where Helen’s had to have anal surgery after slicing herself while shaving her ass. While eating pizza with a nurse, she tells him a surely fictional tale of employees who let their cum fly on a pie when a customer complained that it was taking too long. (And yes, you get to see that, too. In slow motion.) And Wetlands ultimately feels like the key act in that story: a big circle jerk.
Wetlands opens Sept. 12 at West End Cinema and Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.