Helen Memel (Carla Juri), the high-school-age protagonist of Wetlands, suffers an anal fissure while “lady shaving” her butt, paws through the family fridge with sperm dripping from her fingers, and asks her new friend Robin the nurse (Christoph Letkowski) to “take a picture of my arschloch.” But don’t get the wrong impression — Wetlands, adapted by director David Wnendt from Charlotte Roche’s novel, is a sweet, sympathetic account of a young woman’s coming of age. No, really. Maybe we should forget the “sweet” descriptor, but the basic story is nevertheless familiar to anybody who has seen a foreign-language portrayal of adolescence at the movies recently. It’s only the specific details of her routine that might make certain audience members lose their lunch. This movie is not for the squeamish.
We know what we’re in for in the first scene, when barefoot skateboarder Helen steps into a public toilet flooded with brown liquid. She’s there to apply cream to her hemorrhoids. In the midst of her explaining how she’s in the habit of deliberately swiping her vagina across the filthiest toilet seats she can find, the camera zooms in for a gag-worthy microscopic examination of a stray pubic hair in a puddle of unknown bodily fluid (hers?), and we’re off, into Helen’s private world. Fans of Chuck Berry’s home movies or the revolting close-ups in Ren & Stimpy cartoons may well be enthralled, but the rest of us may take the opportunity to count how many popcorn kernels we’ve got left in that bag on our lap.
Wetlands, a 2013 German production distributed by the Match Factory, sets new standards for the frank spotlighting of bodily functions, and the fact that our guide is a teenage girl only heightens the shock value (Swiss native Juri was actually in her late twenties when the film was made). Audiences at the Sundance and Frameline film fests reportedly ate it up, but we should take that news with a grain of salt. They’re easily titillated. Think of Helen’s compulsion to grovel in the muck as an endearing urge for interpersonal connection, something she doesn’t get from either her selfish father (Axel Milberg) or her scatterbrained mother (Meret Becker). Helen has been dissatisfied with her life since her parents divorced and needs to act out her intense growing pains. Playing with dirty tampons and masturbating with cucumbers in the bathtub are her cries for help, and some of her antics are quite funny.
The film cannot, and does not, maintain the pace of outrageousness. In the end, our heroine has better things to do than fantasize about a semen-drenched pizza. Kudos to Juri for her portrait of a dedicated upsetter, as well as to director Wnendt, just now finding audiences outside Germany for this energetic chronicle of mixed-up youth.