One doesn’t often encounter films with fecal stains on toilet-bowl porcelain as their main visual motif. For that, and for its general ludic obsession with all things generally thought of as disgusting, the German film Wetlands is stuck in the anal stage. It revolves around the relationship between a taboo-defying teenage tomboy, Helen (Carla Juri), and her body—particularly her hemorrhoids. Helen’s desire to experiment with all the things she’s told to avoid in order to be ladylike, like sitting on an undressed public toilet or sticking a finger inside her orifices, drives the film’s quirky narrative and visuals. Refusing her mother’s genital-cleaning recommendations, for instance, she keeps her private parts as dirty as possible in order to attract boys (it apparently works), rubs her vagina on filthy surfaces to enhance the odor, and dreams of eating delivery pizza that’s been soaked in pizzaiolo sperm.
So much supposed nastiness could easily amount to some gratuitous feminist provocation, a la Valerie Solanas when she claimed that men will swim through an ocean of snot and “wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy waiting for him.” While there’s something feminist about Wetlands’s pictorial evocation of the body as an archive, and how its realness filters everything, it’s a notion that’s conveyed in the least pedantic of ways; there’s also gravitas to Helen’s fully fleshed-out character, Juri’s believable performance, and the absolute inimitableness of the film’s subject matter.
While the beginning of the film introduces its main character in what may seem like gratuitously scatological fashion, Wetlands does have a story to tell, and a wonderfully associative approach to editing. After a botched attempt at shaving her anal region, Helen ends up at a hospital, where she meets Robin (Christoph Letkowski), a nurse who becomes enamored of her disdain for prudishness and social etiquette. After an operation, she’s told she can go home once her bowels move. Helen pretends this never happens so that she can stay close to Robin, cocooned from the alienating sterility of the real world (in the hospital, the existence of bodily fluids and excrement are, at least, acknowledged) and dreaming of being visited by her mom and dad as though they’d never been divorced.
A girl’s inability to process her parents’ separation appears not as a direct cause for her attraction to what’s deemed dirty, but as a kind of haunting that keeps her from accepting cleanliness as a prerequisite for sociality. Filmmaker David Wnendt creates this temporal interplay sensorially, linking memories of Helen’s childhood and her teenage present, and seamlessly, as though they inhabited different zones of the same frame (the kind of whimsical strategy that could have rendered the child’s perspective in What Maisie Knew believable). Wnendt exposes the way scenes from the past and present tend to distort and infect each other, unable to be catalogued impermeably in distinct parts of the brain.
At times this contamination is expressed through light, the same exact hue of blue that bathes a scene featuring Helen in a pool with her father and in a theater with her mother. At other moments it’s expressed through senses seldom explored in cinema, like the literal enacting of a character’s memory of taste and texture, as when Helen, as a child, is chastised for licking the leather enveloping a pommel horse because she loves smooth surfaces. And soft ones too, “like the tip of a penis,” she declares. When the nurse suggests she’s just an exhibitionist, Helen replies, “I just got nothing to hide.”