Every year, a film comes along on the international festival circuit that quickly garners infamy for the sheer level of gut-wrenching disgust it manages to condense into a 90-minute block. Testing the realms of the morally acceptable and severely compromising its audience’s ability to hold down food, it generates buzz quicker than you can say “black plague” and is thrown around like a badge of honour in undergraduate cinema courses, drawing a spectrum of reactions ranging from “Oooooh” to “Ewwwww”.
Enter Wetlands, the tale of eighteen-year old Helen (Carla Juri), a cherubic beauty with a passion for body fluids, sex and Robin, the male nurse treating her for anal haemorrhoids. Premiering at the Locarno International Film Festival in August last year, the film follows Helen as she lands herself in hospital following a shaving accident in her pubic area. “Everyone needs a hobby,” Helen begins, introducing herself. “Besides fucking, mine is growing avocados.” Helen uses her hospitalisation as a time to reflect upon her friends, lovers and, of course, her experimentation with body fluids and copulation in ways you never envisioned possible.
With a family dysfunctional enough to rival Wes Anderson, Helen is disarmingly earnest as she reflects upon her life to this point. Growing up with a single mother, she receives a copy of Rosemary’s Baby for her seventh birthday. Entering her teenage years, she carefully explores her every orifice with various vegetables, concluding that carrots are the most sexually gratifying. She eventually meets Corinna (Marlen Krus), a buxom blonde with a proclivity for dating good-for-nothing bad boys, and the two embark on a whirlwind journey that involves an ecstasy-fuelled rampage across the city and a bonding ceremony in which the girls swap used tampons and smear each other’s menstrual blood on their faces.
Despite the nature of the material, Jakub Bejnarowicz’s grungy cinematography captures these moments quite beautifully. The film is a celebration of the untamed female body. In one particularly striking image, the girls get stoned and savagely feast on a watermelon that’s been smashed against the bathroom floor, the bright pink juices drip down their faces like famished animals. Teamed with Helen’s drug-addled memory and increasingly unreliable narration, the film almost descends into psychological thriller territory as she attempts to piece together the traumatic, early childhood that has made her the way she is.
That said, the film is almost too stylised for its own good. Attempting to bring to life the inner workings of Helen’s mind, director David Wnendt’s use of reproductive metaphors – including an avocado tree growing out of a woman’s vulva to symbolise childbirth, naturally – may have appeared esoteric in the original 2008 novel by Charlotte Roche, but is too heavy-handed to be brought to life on screen.
Part black comedy, part family drama, Helen’s coming of age tale (pun entirely intended) follows in the tradition of Portnoy’s Complaint and the ‘all out’ male sexual awakening. I say male only because the raunchy, unapologetic sex comedy remains a fairly masculine ball play to this day, with films like Animal House, Screwballs, Meatballs and Superbad helping to shape the myth that the sex-obsessed male is funny, while the sex-obsessed female is marginal (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) or psychologically deranged (Nymphomaniac), or just Samantha from Sex and the City.
In this regard, Wetlands comes as a refreshing take on the sex comedy. Despite Helen’s filthy habits and one-track mind, she is a genuinely funny, likeable protagonist. However, even the bravest viewer will struggle with the last fifteen minutes. Determined to stay in hospital and pursue her burgeoning romance with Robin, Helen deliberately reopens her anal fissures by impaling her anus on a metal chair leg. Having toughened my stomach through years of tasteless viewing habits, from Teeth (2007) to The Human Centipede (2009) to Killer Joe (2011), I had never once doubted my ability to enjoy a light dinner before one of these late-night festival gross outs. Oh, how wrong I was.
While there’s no need to spell out how viscerally I reacted to this film, it’s fair to say that Wetlands is the strongest contender for most torrid film of 2014. You have been warned.
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