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The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

What do you consider offensive? The dictionary definition of
the word suggests that to be offended is to be hurt, or angered, by something
one has seen, or experienced. Wetlands,
a new film from director David Wnendt, contains many scenes which might easily be
called, by this criterion, offensive. One probably wouldn’t normally want to watch them, and
certainly not in close-up, if one had a choice. You might wince. You might look away. You
might walk out. Or, perhaps, you might watch, out of curiosity. Wnendt takes us, with this
work, on a very bumpy tour of a young woman’s maturation, sparing nothing to
show us his narrator’s body, as well as her body’s functions, its wounds, and
its moments of ecstasy, all equally vivid, all equally exciting. It also shows
us the tormented relationships she has with her parents, with her family, with
men—and the sort of violence perpetrated in those spheres. The question the
film asks, quite profoundly and with such confidence that it’s hard to stay shocked
at its earthiness for too long, is: why are we so offended by bodily functions,
and perhaps less by the ills humans visit on each other?

About those bodily functions: As has been noted widely in
the film’s critical reception, it begins ear-catchingly, with Helen’s (Carla Juri)
announcement, a la Proust by way of Scorsese, that as long as she can remember,
she’s had hemorrhoids. In an instant, ointment is applied to her thumb, and her
thumb is inserted up her rectum, where the ointment is applied to a painful,
chronic, sore. Having completed this gesture, she rubs her vagina around the
toilet seat, just to test her vaginal health, and then she pauses for a reverie
inspired by a pubic hair stuck to the particularly filthy rim of the bowl;
we immediately shoot into a Delicatessen-style
journey deep into the roots of the hair (again a bit like Scorsese’s tour of
the Copa Cabana in Goodfellas); microscopic
creatures chomp and gnash; spores float like so many balloons; we see what may
be the encroachment of a virus but looks a little more like germ-on-cell rape.
It’s an appropriate beginning to the story; the film zips along with an almost
jazz-like energy, even as the soundtrack is generally gravelly
punk-inspired guitar mash. What we get here is partly a sexual history, partly a family history, and
partly the story of an anal injury incurred while shaving. Shaving has a
special meaning for Helen; in one of numerous jarringly sensual flashbacks, we
see her being shaved, naked, by a similarly naked coworker. The scene stands
out as one of the more gentle scenes in a film about different kinds of
violence, and their effects. After nicking herself in the anus, she bleeds, and
bleeds, and bleeds, and finally ends up in the hospital, under the care of
Robin (Christoph Letkowski), a male nurse with slightly shaky judgment. One would think the gore and
filth would stop here, but in fact it doesn’t. Though the hospital stay
provides the framework for the film, it serves here as a means to an end—the
end being Helen’s wrestling with her family history. We learn other things
about Helen here; for instance, she has an innocent friend, Corinna (Marlen Kruse) whom she corrupts,
takes drugs with, gets in trouble with—and, as friends do, Corinna departs. We also
learn small pieces of Helen’s daily life, get a sense of her musical taste, watch
her grow from a cleanliness-obsessed toddler into a much rougher young adult. And yet Helen’s family history looms larger and turns out to be far more offensive than any
of her displays in the film: more than her licking her vaginal fluids off her
fingers before a date, more than her leaving semen on her hands after giving a
friend a hand job, more than the sight of her own poop, all around her, when
she wakes up in the hospital the morning after surgery.

What do we know about the family? Plenty, and little. But we
find out enough to make the average viewer, as the dictionary requires, angry.
They appear, in this telling, to be willfully negligent, carrying their own
disturbance into their relationship with their child a certain degree of
immunity, at least in this telling. Karen’s parents are divorced. Her
biological father is a rough, arrogant sort who, when Helen is small,
accidentally slams the door of a car trunk on Helen’s hand. We don’t see him
apologize, or rush to her side, and we get the sense that no such reaction is
forthcoming; as an indicator of the general timbre of their relationship, the
moment is chilling. In another scene, when Helen is older, we see her father
dancing wildly by the family pool, his erection waving around so obviously in
his swim trunks that Helen makes a voiceover comment about it, and we focus on
it. And still later, when Helen is in the hospital, his recovery gift to her is
not so affectionate: a hemorrhoid cushion, which he doesn’t bother to
inflate for her. Helen’s mother doesn’t receive much better exposure here; when
Helen is very young, she does a trust exercise, asking Helen to jump into her
arms—only to back away as Helen jumps, warning her, as she lies on the ground,
not to trust anyone, even parents. Her mother’s rage manifests itself in
different ways: her adoption of religions ranging from Judaism to Buddhism to
Catholicism; her lifting her skirt and showing her crotch at a dinner party
when her drunk husband begins relating the surgical procedure necessary to
complete Helen’s delivery; and finally, a violent act which Helen stumbles on,
which has scarred the family, scarred Helen’s brother, and scarred Helen in
ways she doesn’t entirely understand.

Admittedly, because the film is a self-portrait, and because
its spirited approach animates it so much that you can almost forget the poop,
the semen and the lubricant, it would be tempting to think the portraits of
Helen’s parents presented here are biased, shaped, or even imagined—but the
real-time encounters we see, the matter-of-fact conversations in the hospital,
at home, are dry, and the outward manner each parent displays does not indicate
the capacity for remorse at dereliction, only weary tolerance of Helen’s antics;
the conversations intimate a long history of missed apologies. And so, the
final question is, is it more offensive, or shocking, to see two girls rubbing
menstrual blood on each others’ faces, or to see misguided parental behavior,
which silently presages the more outrageous aspects of the film? When the end
comes, and it is a happy one, as much as it could be during recovery from anal
fissures, one is relieved to see that it involves pushing away from her past, most specifically her family. When watching a film like this, which has banked on the shock value of its content, one wants, in a sense, to be impressed: Wow, that was really… gross. It is to the film’s credit that characters who exist primarily on the margins of the narrative provide its points of greatest offense, casting the humanity and curiosity of the film’s central figure into a curiously positive light.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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