Just when you thought you had seen every variant the cinema had to offer when it comes to the hoary ‘coming of age’ trope in cinema, a movie like the German export Wetlands comes along as a candy-colored, bodily-fluid spattered cure to that notion. Based on a novel deemed both unfilmable and unspeakably vulgar by Charlotte Roche (a quote before the film proper informs us of this much), this adaptation proves itself cheeky from the very first shot (yup, double meaning), subverting expectation and throwing us headlong into the propulsive world of our protagonist Helen (an amazing performance from Carla Juri). After being subjected to her mother’s overwhelming doctrine of cleanliness as a young girl, Helen finds herself in search of bigger and bigger game in the world of anti-hygiene.
She actively seeks out the dirtiest public toilet seats she can find (a zoom reveals the mess resting atop it to be a roiling sea of bacteria filmed like a science-fiction landscape), experiments freely in the sexual realm (making the fair point that if you’re grossed out by bodily fluids you probably aren’t emotionally equipped for sex acts) with vegetables and the like, and generally behaves in a taboo-shattering, iconoclastic manner. In the aftermath of her parents’ divorce (her mother’s mental instability reaches far beyond the OCD tendencies previously described, while her dad is a flippant non-presence), Helen only has her best friend (and hygienic cohort) Corinna to rely on. Her flippant tendencies catch up to her (I’ll only say this: anal fissure) and land her in the hospital, where she flirts with the handsome young nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski does a fine job as Juri’s romantic foil) and schemes to reunite her parents under the banner of her injured anus.
Juri proves to be an absolute revelation here. If the conductor on this express train to the realm of gross-out cinema isn’t as extraordinarily likable a presence as she provides, this film would provide little other than shock value, but she infuses each scene she’s in with an energy all her own, making her actions explicable if not exactly endorsable. She’s front and center for most of the picture, and a lesser actress would’ve wilted under the pressure of playing somebody so willingly filthy while remaining likable as a screen presence, but Juri is 100 percent up to the challenge. She’s aided by whip-smart direction and editing from David Wnendt and Andreas Wodraschke, respectively. This movie’s energy explodes off the screen, with bright colors and great music cues working in concert with propulsive editing that makes the exploration of so many taboos (and there are many: the aforementioned masturbation and toilet seats, tampon sharing and an unforgettable pizza delivery are but a handful) feel triumphant instead of something to be sickened by. It’s a feat equal to Juri’s performance, presenting these scenarios boldly and unapologetically and daring you not to stay onboard with the story.
As Wetlands moves toward its conclusion, the storyline loses a bit of its effervescence as we inch closer to the painful truth behind Helen’s behavior, and while it does take a little steam of the movie’s sails to become so openly melodramatic, it has been dealing with the notions of how we bristle against and are defined by the parents who raise us, so its ultimate destination can’t be all that surprising. It’s a let-down after a movie that shatters stereotypes and aims for subversion for most its running time to suggest that Helen’s boldness is a sickness that needs curing, but the journey toward this conclusion is so snappily performed and directed you’re willing to forgive it. For all of its focus on our secretions, Wetlands is secretly quite sweet – perhaps that is the biggest subversion of all. This very literal coming-of-age tale is certainly not for everyone (I’m sure the descriptions above sent a lot of potential viewers packing), but if you’re willing to have your cinematic boundaries tested ever so slightly, you’ll be richly rewarded.
Wetlands plays Monday, Oct. 6 at The Times Cinema at 10 p.m. as part of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. Purchase tickets at the box office or http://mkefilm.org/wetlands-feuchtgebiete-feuchtgebiete