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Even before virtually all humankind became wary of physical contact, “Wetlands” flaunted its grotesque sexual provocations with rebellious glee. Now, this icky and poignant tale of anal fissures and semen-coasted pizza — all positioned within the perspective of a young German woman taking control of her troubled world — has become the ultimate fantasy of the social distancing age.
The 2013 adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s controversial 2008 novel stars Carla Juri in a mesmerizing, confrontational performance propelled by one of the most sexually liberated female characters in history of cinema. Like Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” which came out the same year, “Wetlands” follows a woman whose traumatic relationship with her parents propels her to treat sexual taboos as the ultimate escapism. However, unlike Von Trier’s epic two-part odyssey, “Wetlands” uses its gnarly details to smuggle in a touching romance that transcends its unsanitary surfaces. At times, it uses them to hilarious, even charming effect, dangling its transgressive details like a dare but not a prank.
That’s because Helen, the smarmy and kink-obsessed 18-year-old at the center of director David Wnendt’s vibrant adaptation, has a gleeful relationship to her shocking fetishes that she never hesitates to share with the audiences. Helen shares her life philosophy against a riotous rock-and-roll soundtrack: “If you think penises, sperm, and other bodily fluids are gross, you should just forget about sex altogether,” she says.
Fair enough, but even the most daring viewers may squirm as the camera follows her lustful gaze to a dirty toilet seat, as the camera keeps pushing further, transforming into a CGI shot of bacterial gunk that suggests the atomic realm of “Ant-Man” gone viral.
Helen’s freewheeling hedonistic lifestyle has genuine punk rock grit, and Wnendt brings it life through a lively blend of John Waters-level depravity and the rambunctious energy of “Trainspotting.” Yet even as she coasts around town on a skateboard, toying with sexual deviance wherever she can, the lifestyle has its limits. By the end of the first act, a painful attempt to shave her rear end leads to Grand Guignol results, and she’s trapped in a hospital bed for much of the movie.
That’s when “Wetlands” goes from pure shock fest to turn, against almost impossible odds, into a sweet and affecting romcom. As she remains trapped in a hospital gown while impatient workers wait for her bowels to loosen, Helen bonds with the kind-hearted nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), who’s both unbothered by her leering tendencies and draw to the personality behind them. Through their developing romance, the sadder aspects of Helen’s upbringing gradually bubble to the surface, as “Wetlands” clarifies Helen’s sexual proclivities as a kind of built-in defense system without repudiating them in the process.
It’s a fascinating tonal balance that doesn’t always stick, as some of the sullen dramatic twists are upended by Wnendt’s tendency to turn the volume back up with another yucky montage. But Juri displays so much conviction to the role that Helen never seems like a pornographic punchline; instead, she’s so honest and open about her desires that she becomes incapable of recognizing where they come from, until she meets a partner willing to give her space for that exploration.
If “Wetlands” lacks the payoff promised by the many outrageous gags strewn throughout it, the movie still manages to make the journey worthwhile. Invest in its squirm-inducing confrontation of the human body and the intentions coalesce with time: This is a movie less invested in visceral discomfort than the underlying value of human connection. At a time when everyone’s more than a little cleaning compulsive, it’s the ultimate celebration of more innocent times.
“Wetlands” was distributed by Strand Releasing and is available on Amazon Prime.