The title of Wetlands strongly suggests a nature documentary, and that’s not so far off the mark. Doing — and smelling and tasting — what comes naturally is the singular obsession of the film’s rollicking heroine, Helen (Carla Juri, sensational), an 18-year-old student of vaginal flora and bodily fluids. Helen’s cheerfully experimental sex life and rebellious attitude toward personal hygiene may shock her Catholic mother, but her unwavering affection for her body, in all its secreting glory, is nothing less than thrilling.
We meet her in a filthy public restroom, finger slathered in hemorrhoid cream and heading toward her itchy anus. Getting into the spirit, the camera follows that digit to its destination before diving toward a hair perched stickily on the toilet seat. Suddenly, the screen erupts into an animated purple-and-orange jungle of jiving germs, like an alien nightclub. (The marvelously vivacious cinematography is by Jakub Bejnarowicz.) This technique — disgust derailed by musical comedy — is repeated throughout the movie’s memoirlike chain of exploratory vignettes, and it’s one of the reasons that Wetlands is much less repellent to watch than to describe.
And even if some scenes are tailor-made for John Waters’ scratch-and-sniff cards, the director, David Wnendt, has such an intuitive grasp of tone and commitment to his insouciant star that it’s tough to take offense.
Adapting Charlotte Roche’s wildly popular and polarizing novel, Wnendt, who wrote the screenplay with Claus Falkenberg, locates the poignancy in Helen’s provocations. Helen may be a walking middle finger to cultural norms of femininity, but she’s more than a political symbol. When an intimate shaving accident lands her in hospital with a painful anal fissure, her extreme attempts to reconcile her divorced parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg) reveal a touching vulnerability, as do flashbacks to her 8-year-old self. But Wnendt isn’t interested in a narrative of blame and redemption; he’s creating a space where Helen, whose enthusiastic voice-over guides us along, can define herself.
A hard candy with a soft and sweet center, Wetlands can sometimes signal its themes too literally — in one scene, a fetishistic man dons a headlamp to shave Helen’s privates — but its explicit imagery is never pornographic. The tone is breezy, bright and brash, vividly illuminated by Juri’s extraordinarily unprotected and utterly fearless performance. With her dirty-blond curls and angelic smile, Helen is fully alive in a way that’s all too rare on our movie screens. She’s not out to shock or sicken; that’s your problem, not hers.
Cast: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Marlen Kruse, Peri Baumeister, Edgar Selge, Harry Baer .
Director: David Wnendt.
Screenwriters: Claus Falkenberg, David Wnendt. Based on the novel by Charlotte Roche
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 109 minutes. In German with English subtitles. Adult content, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.