Thursday, September 11, 2014
You may have heard about Wetlands, the fourth film by German director David Wnendt based on the novel by Charlotte Roche that made a bit of a splash at Sundance this year. You probably didn't hear about it's acting, editing, or direction as much as whispers about how insanely gross it is. It's certainly quite raunchy and even disgusting at times, but there's much more to be gathered from the slimy, nsfw tale of Helen. That said, I'll try to keep the review as PG as possible, but be forewarned that the movie–and any discussion of it–is likely to be pretty graphic for some viewers.
Wetlands follows Helen, a bit of an outsider: as a reaction to her strictly sterile upbringing, she considers her body to be a great experiment in hygiene, or more specifically, lack of hygiene. The movie opens with her internal monologue explaining her relationship with her hemorrhoids, which she's proudly had for many years. There are a few things Helen holds in high regard: sex, her avocado garden, her best friend Corinna, and her divorced parents. While the film weaves between several parts of her story (more on that later), the central thread develops as she accidentally cuts her anus while shaving, which requires a lengthy hospital visit where she meets a nurse, Robin, who is slowly drawn into her weird world.
Looking past the obvious, maybe the most notable thing about Wetlands is its unique and exciting style. Reminiscent of films like Trainspotting and Spring Breakers, it utilizes a sort of kitchen-sink approach to editing and cinematography, using any and all techniques both familiar and extreme to get the tone of the scene just right. There are some really wonderful POV and SnorriCam shots that have as the focus something other than the actor's face, like a finger or a skateboard. The drug-fueled sequence in the second half has great jump cuts and psychedelic overlays that really sell the scene. My favorite bits might be the long takes in which imagined characters come and go, or Helen changes from her current to her child self, all seamlessly in a way that makes you wonder if you may have imagined it, like a subliminal single-frame shot–oh, and there are those too.
Wetlands also happens to be a deeply funny movie. There are many parts that will make you cringe, of course, but those are well balanced with bits that made me laugh out loud–and, let's be honest: some of those cringe-worthy moments did that too. Take, for example, this bit: according to Helen, her mother's greatest fear is being taken to the hospital with dirty underwear. In a darkly hilarious scene in which she imagines her mother getting hit by a car, a paramedic happens to shine a light up her skirt, seeing a miniscule stain on her underwear, which causes the gathering crowd to point and scream mechanically as if in a 1950's horror film. The movie is full of weird little comedic parts that don't directly add to the story, but give an enormous amount of life and personality to the cast of characters and make what could be purely an exercise in repulsion feel light and jovial for the majority of the film.
It's easy to latch onto how idiosyncratic its central character and conceit are, but the narrative style in the script and editing are perhaps more strange. While the hospital visit is ostensibly the main story, it is interweaved without explanation with Helen's developing friendship with Corinna, flashbacks to her childhood, and her Parent Trap-esque attempts to get her long-separated parents back together. It's unclear the chronological order of these stories, but in many ways it doesn't matter–they all add to Helen in different ways as we get a chance to subtly dig underneath the dirty exterior to see who she really is. My only real issue with Wetlands, though, is that despite my enjoyment of this surprisingly fluid narrative style, it leaves at least one of those major threads unresolved, only providing an unexplored resolution with some still shots during the credits. There's also a bit of a dark revelation near the end that, although explaining some things, is not as tied to the central narrative as the drama of that moment would like you to think.
Despite her coarse openness, there's a certain romance to Helen, and that's owed almost in full to her portrayal by Carla Juri. Juri plays Helen with an innocence that knows no shame despite her endless vulgarity, to the point where she is impossibly endearing. It's a testament to her talents that anyone can find themselves empathizing with a girl who purposely tries to get a yeast infection as an experiment! The full cast of characters is played quite well, though, with Marlen Kruse (Corinna) and Meret Becker (Helen's mother) being the other highlights, who are funny and charming in their own right.
It's worth noting how much fun the almost ubiquitous score and soundtrack is: there are almost no moments without either some imaginative electronic score by composer Enis Rotthoff or, as the film opens and closes with, rebellious punk music. Sounds masterfully work with the wild editing to make you uncomfortable in all the right parts, and the music plays a big role in establishing the tone of the movie.
Wetlands is definitely not for everyone. It's unrated for good reason–I think this bit from IMDb's parent's guide sums it up better than I could: "A close-up photograph of an anal opening is seen briefly from a distance on an iPhone." If you can stomach the bodily fluids, casual frontal nudity, and graphic sexuality of the movie, though, you'll find yourself immensely entertained and maybe a little bit in love, but above all wanting more–or at least wanting to watch it again.