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The Secret Conservatism of Sundance’s Most Controversial Film

The Secret Conservatism of Sundance's Most Controversial Film

A girl sloshes through a flooded subway station in bare feet, nudging the floating trash as she enters a public toilet and rubs her nether regions all over its grimy seat. So begins Wetlands, the German World Dramatic Competition entry at the Sundance Film Festival about a teenage girl who has turned herself into a “living hygiene experiment.” Since the opening three minutes of the gleefully vulgar film began making the rounds on the Internet, Wetlands has been reputed to be “Sundance’s Crassest Movie,” this year’s controversial treatment of gender issues we’ve come to expect following The Woman (2011), Compliance (2012) and Two Mothers (2013). For all its NSFW stunts, though, the exalted romping in Wetlands only masks underlying conservatism that surfaces in its generic ending. To uncover the real boundary-pushing film about women at this year’s Sundance, look no further than Viktoria, the little-seen Bulgarian debut from Maya Vitkova, which may have been the best-kept secret of Sundance’s feminist filmmaking.

Not for lack of initial gusto, the opening half of Wetlands wreaks havoc on the paradigm of the docile female body onscreen. Within the first few minutes Helen demonstrates how she treats her hemorrhoids in excruciating detail as the camera follows the trajectory of her hemorrhoid cream from the tube to her butt crack. She masturbates with a variety of produce, and taints the food in the fridge with her fingers. Making the Blue Is the Warmest Color duo’s performances look positively meek, Carla Juri doesn’t mince around with her body in various seduction scenes. If she looks a little androgynous with her curly mop of hair and skateboard in hand, it’s because this kind of sexually frank woman hardly ever turns out to be straight onscreen. 

Body fluids play a significant role in male buddy comedies — just recall the trademark opening of American Pie — but the beginning of Wetlands reappropriates that genre for a female protagonist. Swapping tampons for fun, Helen and her friend Corinna proclaim they are “blood sisters.” The screenplay doesn’t require a sexual encounter a la Thirteen or Wild Things just to make their candor with one another’s sexuality okay. In these rollicking early scenes Helen demystifies the female body and the close female friendship with the same perverse glee she takes in spreading her female seed on the produce. 

That Wetlands capitulates, portraying Helen’s body fluid obsession as the trace remains of a childhood trauma that can only be treated by the attentions of the hot male nurse, Robin (Christoph Letkowski), shifts the character into a conventional romantic comedy role. When Helen suffers an anal fissure due to a poor shaving decision, her hospital confinement allows her to flirt with the vacuum-like personality of her attractive bedside attendant. Over the course of an implausibly monogamous treatment, Helen’s provocations, paired with lusty reaction shots from Robin, portray the spacey seduction of a romantic nonentity by his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, charmed by tales of semen-spiked pizza and commands to take pictures of her injured anus. In romantic comedies a final rain-soaked scene of passion often acts to wash away all implausibilities: let’s just say Wetlands is no different.

Unlike Helen’s half-realized hygiene experiment, Maya Vitkova’s directorial debut Viktoria envisions an entirely new grammar for female body functions onscreen as it bares all. Where Wetlands renders Helen’s obsession a gimmick that spices up otherwise staid hospital scenes and needs traumatic explanation, Viktoria uses an unusually humorous approach to portraying a real maverick character on film, the reluctant mother. Boryana (Irmena Chickova) resists her husband’s desire for a child until they can escape Socialist Bulgaria for Venice. When her slapstick-funny methods of contraception don’t pan out, she smokes like a chimney and walks around topless for most of the film, as if to cruelly show off the desert of her dry breasts to her baby-happy spouse.

Breast milk pouring out from a nipple and falling from the sky, water breaking like a tidal wave, perspective shots of the baby swimming in the fetus — all taboo female body fluids to show onscreen appear for a simultaneously horrific and comedic effect in Viktoria. While Boryana acts unforgivingly to her daughter Viktoria, the brat that the screenplay has imagined as Socialist Bulgaria’s “Baby of the Decade,” these hallucinatory visions of Boryana’s body acting against her wishes produce empathy for the mother of the country’s most spoiled child.

Viktoria has no interest in normalizing its unrepentant mother and traumatized daughter with a tidy denouement, nor does it cue a familiar audience reaction. Whatever strange comedy we find in the image of an unwanted child innocuously floating in the womb is our own. This makes Viktoria an active and ambiguous moving picture experience, one that keeps us on the edge of our seats not from the anticipation of the next gross-out sequence, but from an attempt at understanding this character and our reactions to her.

How has Wetlands, then, became known as this festival’s barometer of a viewer’s tolerance and open-mindedness, even a feminist statement? The punishing three-hour running time of Viktoria doesn’t help matters, nor does Chickova’s near-silent, morose performance. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the German film was a male-directed adaptation of a female-penned novel that was deemed “unfilmable,” and Viktoria a semi-autobiographical film from its woman director. Viktoria does not seek to conquer its radical character, nor the audience. Its appeal lies not so much in crude surface-level stunts, but how its impressionistic experience stretches the boundaries of empathy for an unusual female figure.

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