“As long as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.” Thus begins “Wetlands,” a German film that will, unfortunately, be discussed far more than it is actually seen. It’s impossible not to talk about after seeing the trailer or reading a review, with its shocking moments, endless fascination with bodily functions and associated microscopic detail. But “Wetlands” is more than just a film that shares far more about anal fissures than you ever wanted to know, it’s a surprisingly sweet coming-of-age comedy brimming with punk-rock energy and an impressive performance from Swiss actress Carla Juri.
In its first scene, “Wetlands” challenges “Trainspotting” for most epicly disgusting toilet scene ever captured on film. Our hygiene-challenged heroine Helen (Juri) has an impressive case of hemorrhoids, which she attempts to ease in a foul public restroom with inches of standing water and a nightmare-inducing toilet. Director David Wnendt (“Combat Girls”) and cinematographer Jakub Bejnarowicz dive into the filth on the seat, giving us a microscopic view of the germs and microorganisms residing there. “Wetlands” wastes no time in giving its audience an idea of what they’re in for, both in terms of exploration of the body and the film’s style.
“Wetlands” manages to get grosser from there, spending most of its time with Helen after a gasp-worthy shaving accident sends her to the hospital with an anal fissure. There are only a few truly horrific shaving scenes in film (“Cabin Fever” comes to mind), but this—like the toilet moment from earlier on— seems intent on topping them all. Helen’s time in the hospital is punctuated by visits from doctors on rounds, as well as from handsome nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski). The rest of the film is devoted to flashbacks from throughout Helen’s young life. At the age of eight, she’s taught a cruel lesson in trust by her mother (Meret Becker) shortly before her parents divorce. We also get glimpses of her sexual and near-sexual encounters with various men, as well as her intimate friendship with Corinna (Marlen Kruse). These relationships figure prominently in where she is now, with an attempted reunion of her estranged parents at the forefront of her mind during her hospital stay.
“Wetlands” begs some comparisons to Lars Von Trier’s two-part “Nymphomaniac” in its frank approach to sex and its protagonist’s escapades. However, while “Nymphomaniac” spends most of its time wallowing in darkness and regret, Wnendt’s film is gleeful throughout most of its run time. Beyond her experimentation, Helen has some extreme moments of literal self-destruction, but “Wetlands” doesn’t judge her for her actions, and neither does Helen herself. Beyond its liberal sexuality, “Wetlands” is a progressive feminist statement. Helen’s choices and life are her own, and even though she’s young, she doesn’t lack for agency. The film joins other comedies like “Bridesmaids” and “Bachelorette” in its assertion that grossness isn’t the sole domain of men. This film meets the level of male-driven gross-out films and, in fact, exceeds them with an attitude of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
There has rarely been so perfect a match between soundtrack artists and film as there is here. “Wetlands” features two Peaches songs—“Fuck the Pain Away” and “You Love It”—and it’s no stretch to think that Helen herself would be a fan of this particular artist. The rest of the soundtrack includes not only all-girl band Thee Headcoatees, but also classical music from Puccini and Strauss.
Based on Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel, Wnendt’s film looks great even as it makes its audience wish to look away. Flashbacks are shot through a filter, and creative editing from Andreas Wodraschke always keeps things interesting. The camera never hesitates to zoom in on a character’s face or a particularly gruesome detail. There’s a lot of fantasy here, thanks to Helen’s imaginative mind, and it’s presented as reality in an engaging way.
The gross-out moments slow down later in the film (and the movie loses a little steam with their absence), but there’s one final shocker for the audience that might be more stomach-churning than all that precede it. Our stomach just inverted at the thought. Calling the film an exercise in endurance seems a bit extreme, but “Wetlands” isn’t for everyone. It’s intentionally shocking and its subject matter will likely dissuade the faint of heart. For those that can accompany Helen and Wnendt on their journey—and make it through to the end—they’ll be rewarded for an entirely unique look at the life of an adventurous young woman and leave with plenty to discuss. Just don’t talk about it over dinner. [B+]