Within its first two minutes, Wetlands — a German film that debuts at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday — presents a series of escalating provocations that let the audience know this movie is not for anyone even remotely squeamish. The film begins on what appears to be bare butt, but is actually the bare flexed knee of 18-year-old Helen (Carla Juri), who tells us in voice-over (the film is in German with subtitles) that, for most of her life, she’s had hemorrhoids. And before we even see Helen’s face, we see her scratching said hemorrhoids as she skateboards through her suburban town.
Then, she walks — barefoot — into a public bathroom flooded with about an inch of cloudy water. As she looks down at a toilet seat, she fixates on a patch of dried urine surrounding a single pubic hair. The camera zooms in on this particular tableau until the viewer is seeing its microscopic, cellular details, including blob-like creatures with beaks that snap at the screen.
And this is only Wetlands’ opening credits!
After seeing the film on Friday night at a press screening, some colleagues asked me to tell them about it, which I did under a cloud of significant personal embarrassment. I got as far as Helen scratching her own hemorrhoids, however, before I was told to stop. Which was fine because I was already flush from having to talk in any detail about this film out loud. And that, I think, is the point of Wetlands.
Based on Charlotte Roche’s best-selling 2010 German novel of the same name, Wetlands tracks Helen’s uninhibited exploration of her own body with a playful shamelessness that can be simultaneously bracing and, at times, hysterical. As Helen explains after her adventure in the public bathroom, “If you think penises, sperm, and other bodily fluids are gross, you should just forget about sex altogether.”
For Helen, this means rebelling against the fastidious cleanliness of her depressive mother (Meret Becker) and emotional callousness of her clueless father (Alex Milberg) by obsessively experimenting with her own genitalia. This includes (but is by no means limited to): smearing her vagina all over that public toilet seat (and proudly proclaiming that she’s never had a yeast infection); simulating and rating sex with various raw, phallic vegetables in the bathtub (ginger root is no good, but carrots rate the best); sharing used tampons with her best friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse); not washing off the after-effects of a seaside hand job; and allowing an older man at her summer job to give her “a good shave.”
That last experience leads to the central event of the film: During a “quick and dirty” bout of self-shaving, Helen gives herself an anal fissure, and has to undergo surgery to have it repaired. Her recovery serves as a loose framing device for a series of flashbacks to her recent and distant past, demystifying how Helen became such a sexually forward exhibitionist as she attempts, in the present, to bring her divorced parents back together and aggressively flirt with her very cute male nurse, Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
I will spare you from a further catalogue of Helen’s exploits — one involves rescuing a rat from a toilet — but suffice it to say, every possible bodily fluid created by man and woman makes it on screen at some point in this film. As far as its drama, however, Wetlands is also all over the place. The flashbacks are so haphazardly linked together, it’s not until the film’s third act that we begin to glean the childhood trauma that caused Helen to act with such self-damaging abandon. But that trauma — which isn’t what you may expect — is also patly resolved in a way that is at odds with the film’s brazen revelry in the right to be a mess.
As far as being a challenge of an audience’s expectations for what a woman’s sexual exploration should look like, Wetlands is incredibly effective. Afterwards, to keep myself from falling into a shame spiral of mortification for even thinking about the movie, I reminded myself just how many male-driven sex comedies have reveled in bodily fluids and bad behavior, and how none of them caused me such personal embarrassment as this movie did. Women can be disgusting, too, in life and on screen. Wetlands is not for everyone, but I am (perhaps shockingly) glad I got to see it.