I’ve seen plenty of repugnant films, the kind that shock for the sake of shocking. I’m not just talking Death the Ultimate Horror either, an hour-long collage of real-life murders, mishaps, and violent pratfalls set to the unrelenting pummel of speed metal. They bore a morbid fascination for me at seventeen, the same sick and twisted attraction driving teenagers into the arms of GG Allin or to the midnight cinema for Spike & Mike’s.
No, I’m thinking more of Catherine Breillat’s stark explorations on female sexuality, or a certain coming-of-age pie-screwer, or Jackass, or Harmony Korine’s Gummo—easily one of the more twisted flicks I’ve ever come across. I’m even the kind of open-minded viewer who’s considered watching Nymphomaniac, both parts, and I mean really watching it because I’m the kind of viewer who looks for meaning upon a filth soaked screen.
At least I thought so, but now I have walked the ledge of my own tolerance.
Never has a film been more repulsive, and to be frank terrible, than Wetlands, German director David Wnendt’s adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s millennial gross-out novel. At best, it’s a challenge to the audience’s patience for shock-o-rama disguised as the tale of a young woman coming to terms with her filthiest self. At worst it’s a crass and aggressive exploitation of a damaged young women’s emotional evolution. Packaged as the year’s most “WTF, NSFW movie”— the earmark of all great cinema—Wetlands received the red carpet and golden praise of every misguided film critic. Hailed as a raw and to the bone work, the kind that can only be seen as honest and refreshing, this flick is cheap and ignorant, and often dishonest with itself and its audience.
The film opens on Helen, played with the coyness of a dead fish by Swiss actress Carla Juri. Helen’s a vaguely youthful—16 to 23 based on your own predilections—disenchanted German urbanite careening through the city on a longboard as she narrates us through life’s challenges, starting with her hemorrhoids. She ducks into a bathroom a shade filthier than the Trainspotting commode where she graphically relieves the itch with a fingertip of zinc cream. The camera zooms in on an idle toilet-seat pubic hair, rolling credits as the audience rides upon a vibrant CGI roller coaster through a bacteria-riddled stain. This is the least grotesque sequence in a film full of vile scenes strung together by a weak narrative. There’s Helen waxing poetic on the necessity of pungent lady musk as she hand-jobs a local skater boy and heads home with semen dripping from her palm. It's crude irrelevance repeatedly matched in scenes like the one of her and her best friend Carla smearing menstrual blood across their faces in a celebration of sisterhood.
Wnendt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Claus Falkenberg, assaults the audience into understanding; a near State Department-approved approach to filmmaking. Rationale engagement is out the window and the audience must now suffer this two-hour long, collective water-boarding, struggling to catch its breath as the film interrogates our senses. Wnendt attempts to rectify the shallowness of Helen’s variant on self-mutilation by paralleling her alongside a digital-device-obsessed kid brother. He’s a forgettable youth who somehow manages to be the crux of the film’s emotional resolution. The brother also appears to have endured none of the damage so drastically fracturing his sister, both of them born to self-involved, deranged, and unstable parents. Their father is a horny ego-maniac who quite literally, and figuratively, does not see how he is hurting his kids as he slams the trunk closed on Helen’s fingers. Their mother is a lost soul whose spiritual thirst is quenched by either a multitude of religious men or dishing out the brute truth for her kids. Helen recalls standing atop a wall as a little girl ready to jump into her mother’s arms, a mother who steps out of the way at the last moment letting Helen pummel to the floor. She looks in her eyes and says, “Don’t trust anybody, not even your parents.”
This is one of the major problems Wetlands, it lacks nuance and subtlety. It smacks your mind like a ten-ton hammer, retaining that Euro aesthetic—Amelie comes to mind, which in all its attempts at feminine charm Wetlands so desperately wants to be—the American music, the quick spins of the camera, the wandering young adult. What it aims for, and fails to deliver on, is the magic of maturity blossoming, those moments when the petals of youth fall to the floor. After Helen accidently cuts her anus open—no lie—while trying to quickly shave she lands in the world’s most bumbling hospital, full of dimwit doctors unaware of how to treat patients, or that they shouldn’t be drinking on the job. It’s here she meets Robin, a young stud of a nurse who’s not only intrigued by Helen, but willing to withstand the emotional and sexual tumult that is any of her relationships. I’ll leave the rest to you, I tuned out after Helen and Robin ate a pizza that four middle-aged men had jerked off on.
I’m not a prude, not by any stretch of the imagination, I’m not a conservative consumer and not afraid to be challenged by art in anyway. But Wetlands presents two challenges of shallow proportions to its audience that I’m bot buying. First, what can you stand in the name of charm? There’s a joyful malice in Helen’s face, not a well-acted joy, but nevertheless a delightful mischievousness this film hinges on. Wnendt needs us to find this charismatic malice sympathetic and endearing in order to look beyond Helen’s physical deviancy. The challenge lies in whether or not audience members can make the separation and see Helen not for the emotionally damaged girl she is—in dire need of psychological help—but as some Euro pixie whose brand of self-mutilation can be mistaken for being in touch with herself.
The second challenge is for the progressive viewer, the pro-choice viewer, the viewer who fancies themselves a feminist or better yet someone who gets it. Is there agency in Helen’s behavior, or is she a mere sociopath? Is she the feminine alternative Wnendt hopes to present—a worldly self-embracing millennials vision of crass girlyness? Better yet, can you dig it out? I’m one of these viewers, I fancy myself a bit of a feminist and I can always dig it out. I like movies where women break rank and exercise self-determination.
On the surface Wetlands yearns to be a serious alternative examination of young womanhood. But this objective is undermined by casting a high-cheeked alt girl in the lead; our deviant heroine is a model-ready young woman whose true obsessions lie not in self-actualization—a by-product of her rubbing zinc cream in her asshole—but in the male gaze. It becomes blatant early on in the film Helen’s sense of self is directly proportional to the attention she receives from her father, a gaping hole she fills instead with the sexualized tendencies of some co-worker who wants to shave her, Robin the horny dumb nurse, and those pizza makers. This isn’t agency, this isn’t bold, she isn’t determined. Helen’s typical in the same way most female characters are, she’s been shaped on paper and screen to meet the male vision of fantasy, she just happens to be gross.
Even when Helen comes to term with the emotional trauma haunting her life, it’s no more than a thin veil of emotional reasoning for having wasted the audience’s time. What’s left is not some alternative vision of feminism or progressive art, but rather a reductive exploitation film which no amount of vibrant cinematography, or Blu-ray detail, can save. The extras lack insight, a true loss as this might have been the space for anyone involved in making this film to rationalize its existence.
I can’t understand it myself, perhaps I’ve grown too old, perhaps too uptight, I’m not sure. But what I once found so honest about films of this ilk, I see now as evidence of a desensitized culture where filth is presented as frankness and confrontation is mistaken for direct communication.