Do you remember the feeling that Lena Dunham gave you when she ruptured her eardrum on “Girls” after exploring a little too far with a Q-tip? How about the sensation of watching the addicts deteriorate in “Requiem for a Dream”? David Wnendt, in his new German film, “Wetlands,” manages to induce the same type of revulsion in his audience, and, luckily for them, it lasts for nearly the entirety of the work. Wnendt makes viewers physically cringe, wishing they would just disappear while simultaneously remaining unable to cut the cord.
“Wetlands,” mildly described as a “vulgar coming-of-age story,” recounts the sexual experiences of Helen (Carla Juri) as she experiments with one too many bodily fluids. Her antics range from juvenile to repulsive, moving from masturbation via vegetables to saving the cum that dribbles from her hand for her ride home. The film borders on pornography, but aside from a few frontal nudity shots, it does not quite make it there. Multiple scenes, which are clearly crude, remain tasteful — although in the loosest meaning of the word.
Her involvement quickly escalates with the appearance of an anal fissure, which charmingly coexists with her chronic hemorrhoids. When this injury lands Helen in the hospital, she spends her recovery reminiscing on the events that stem from her disdain for personal hygiene. Wnendt uses flashbacks to show Helen becoming the “blood sister” of co-star Marlen Kruse by means of soaked tampons and Helen’s insistence on using discharge as perfume.
Among these flashbacks, however, lies a complicating scene in which the avocado pit that Helen has put inside of her begins to rapidly sprout. Clearly, this latter scene is not plausible. Wnendt blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, making Helen’s visions in the hospital essentially incredible. By juxtaposing the impossible directly next to what is meant to be believed, Helen’s sexual acts come into light as conceivable fiction.
The film intermittently returns to a sense of unquestionable reliability by including the element of a dysfunctional, yet fully believable, family. Throughout the movie, Helen works to reunite her estranged parents, going as far as to extend her stay in the hospital. The family component rests a little awkwardly along with her sexual experimentation but serves to make Helen a bit more relatable. Although her smirk and quirky ways could have probably done this alone, the additional storyline causes Helen to remain somewhat charming in spite of her vulgarities.
There is a sense that Helen is not as entirely comfortable with her status as a “pussy hygiene experiment” as she makes herself out to be. The carnal trials act, rather, as a backdrop for her frustration over her deteriorating family, both present and future. Helen goes as far as to sterilize herself, noting that, for generations, the first-born child (including herself) has been always female and always neurotic. She chooses to end her line instead of acknowledging the unrest that lies below the surface.
Wnendt is one of the first directors to present a sexually liberated female protagonist to this extent. What comes into question is how the public would have received the film differently had the protagonist been male. Charlotte Roche’s novel, off of which the film is based, received harsh criticism when it was published in 2008. The film has yet to receive the same scathing reviews since its release at the Locarno International Film Festival late last year and at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Ultimately, “Wetlands” turns a coming-of-age story on its head, adding in extensive vulgarities to restore a bit of life into the cliched genre. Although Wnendt creates a rather awkward intertwining storyline of family and love, the innovation in the film’s ability to disgust is enough to set it apart.
“Wetlands” opens Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.