“The vagina reeks of life and love and the infinite et cetera. O vagina! Your salty incense, your mushroom moon musk, your deep waves of clam honey breaking against the cold steel of civilization; vagina, draw our noses to the grindstone of ecstasy, and let us die smelling as we did when we were born!”
–Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
David Wnendt’s adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s popular young adult novel stars Carla Juri as Helen Memel, a German teenager with some issues. Helen petulantly rejects most contemporary notions of hygiene, indulges in fetishistic sexual behavior, and has some unresolved concerns about her body. A case of hemorrhoids is equally as fascinating for her as it is uncomfortable. Adding further chaos to Helen’s world are her divorced parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg), and a malleable best friend (Marlen Kruse), who dumbly follows Helen’s questionable lead without much hesitation.
The plot of Wetlands is thin, at best. Helen wants her parents to get back together, so she uses a hospital stay to try to lure them into the same place at the same time, in a naive hope that they’ll reconnect. In the meantime, she develops a crush on a nurse (Christoph Letkowski). That’s about it, but this whole story seems secondary to the film’s primary focus which may either be a character study of a uniquely repulsive young woman, or an endurance test challenging viewers to deal with progressively more disgusting scenes that require us to confront our own curiosity (or revulsion) about the messy fluids our bodies produce.
During 110 minutes spent among this young woman’s vagina, anus, and sticky hands, we are subjected to Helen fantasizing about men masturbating on her pizza, Helen and her friend swapping used tampons and then reusing them, Helen collecting post-surgical bio waste and coating her hands with it, Helen thoroughly cleaning a disgusting public toilet seat (second only to the one in Trainspotting, 1996) with her genitals, and at least a dozen further graphic examples of her nauseating personal obsessions. Helen’s perspectives all coexist along a continuum between sexual fetish and unresolved preadolescent questions about the body. It isn’t a stretch to assume that the fetishistic parts of this are reactions to encountering her divorced father screwing much younger women, while the sanitary rebellion is being fought against Helen’s nutty and hygiene-obsessed mother.
The concept that Helen’s unorthodox perspectives about cleanliness and her infantile obsession with body fluids are symptoms of a psychological development stunted by her childhood traumas is more than clear. However, the film spends so much time unflinchingly showing us these things, wasting no opportunity to further explore Helen’s fixations, that the gratuitous gross-outs become the focus, obscuring any true impact that the thin emotional core of the story may have hoped to achieve.
This film would have been significantly more valuable if it showed us half as many examples of Helen doing things that most of us will find disgusting, and offered twice as much real emotional development. This is particularly true of the character of Helen’s younger brother (Ludger Bökelmann), who is little more than an extra for most of the story. His importance is elevated in the very last minutes of the film, but the reveal of his backstory and his importance in Helen’s development feels tacked on, and comes too late in the story to have much of an impact.
What we’re left with is essentially a tedious horror film without a murderer or any corpses. Viewers of Wetlands should expect to feel nauseated for the bulk of the running time, experiencing the same uncomfortable emotions and queasy thrills that torture porn films provide. Rather than exploring these emotions through violence inflicted upon victims by a villain, Wetlands utilizes our own perspectives about the health of our bodies and the relationships we have with hygiene and sexuality as starting points to push the buttons of the squeamish. Although there may be questions being asked here about societal norms versus taboos that influence our behavior, compelling arguments for ordering a pizza topped with an extra portion of semen or firing the maintenance engineers who clean our public toilets are not being successfully offered.
If the film does anything bravely, it is allowing Helen to remain essentially unchanged in the end. Thinking back to Steven Shainberg‘s Secretary (2002), in which Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a receptionist who is introduced to the ways of sadomasochism by her boss (James Spader), that film seems to initially condone this sort of behavior between consenting adults. But in the end, the characters find love and are “cured” of their fetishistic behavior. The last time we see them they’re in a “normal” vanilla sexual relationship. This ending always felt like a cop-out, as if the bondage and spanking was only a part of their lives because they didn’t have enough love, and once they entered into a healthy relationship, they didn’t need the kink anymore. Secretary is a very, very different sort of movie from Wetlands, but in comparing the endings, Helen also finds a boyfriend, but significantly, she shows no sign of changing her behavior. The fact that most viewers will find her behavior repellant is irrelevant; the film demands that we accept it as being the personality of an individual in a liberal society who isn’t hurting anyone, and who is therefore free to do as she wishes. Her physical injury may have healed, but we’re expected to consider that her well-documented proclivities are not problematic and should not be changed.
Cinema is full of memorable teen misfits who are determined to function on their own terms. Consider for starters Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore (1998), Enid (Thora Birch) in Ghost World (2001), the eponymous Juno (Ellen Page; 2007), or to a certain degree any number of 1980s John Hughes characters. The idea that Helen Memel is unflinchingly portrayed as a disgusting slob makes her no less unique a character than any of these more relatable ones, and she is potentially no less appealing to certain youngsters out there who may feel kinship with her emotionally stunted personality. The problem is that the filmmakers spend so much screen time on things like showing us her shitting her bed, that any empathy we might have been developing for Helen is obscured by the graphic gross-outs. Most people won’t leave this film considering the trauma of Helen’s difficult childhood; they’ll remember her and her friend smearing menstrual blood on each other’s faces, or her violently impaling her rear end on a hospital bed so as to extend her hospital stay. So, we’re left with a film than tries to have heart, but which will alienate any viewers who may have felt kinship with Max, Enid, Juno, or Ferris.
James Teitelbaum is a media arts professor in Chicago. He has been writing film reviews for about a decade, and is the author of four books, including Destination: Cocktails (2012), and Big Stone Head (2009).