Critics have remarked that David Wnendt’s adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s novel is one of a kind, unlike any other movie, and even if one quibbles at that, the proper response would seem to be: Thank heaven. This exuberantly vulgar coming-of-age story is more exhausting than exhilarating.
The film’s greatest strengths lie in Wnendt’s flashy direction and the charismatic performance of Carla Juri as Helen Memel, the wild teen whose fascination with her bodily orifices—and utter willingness to explore them—drives what passes for a narrative. (You might say that she has an anal fixation exacerbated by her painful hemorrhoids, except for her interest in experimenting with vegetables as means of self-stimulation, too.) Her obsession, it’s suggested, comes from excessive injunctions from her mother about cleanliness—portrayed in one of many flashbacks from her traumatic youth—which Helen now dismisses by eagerly seeking out the filthiest public toilets to sit on.
Her divorced parents, of course, she treats with scorn, turning them into stereotypes: the wealthy, lascivious father and the mother devoted to religion who has an insistence on propriety as well as cleanliness. And yet Helen yearns for them to reunite—and she thinks that they might be brought back together by her stay in a hospital after her attempt to shave her derriere with a razor tears the skin.
The surgery to repair the damage doesn’t have that effect, but it does have another when Helen falls for the likable nurse (Christophe Letkowski) who’s also taken with her—so much so that he agrees to photograph her rump for her. She, meanwhile, wants to stay in the hospital—and with him—so badly that she claims not to have the bowel movement that’s a necessary condition for her release.
“Wetlands” weaves other semi-narrative threads into its manic web as well, such as Helen’s initiation of her initially demure neighbor Corinna (Marlen Kruse) into the wild life, and their indulgence in the drug stash of a dealer that leaves him in danger from his suppliers but them having a field day wearing fake moustaches and riding skateboards. And there’s the story told in loving flashback about a pizza that tasted funny because four workers at the pizzeria had masturbated on it. The quartet’s contribution to the pie’s ingredient list is shown in poetic motion to the delightful strains of “The Blue Danube” (Stanley Kubrick, eat your heart out—just don’t bite into the pizza).
All this should make it fairly clear that there aren’t many places where Wnendt and his collaborators aren’t willing to go to paint a picture of female teen raunchiness that outdoes anything the many movies about the male variety over the years. That their film isn’t merely a gross-out exhibition derives from its visual flashiness—the result not just of Wnendt’s directorial style but of Jakub Bejnarowicz’s vivid cinematography, Jenny Roesler’s colorful production design and Andreas Wodraschke’s hyperkinetic editing—and from Juri’s committed performance, which captures both Helen’s lack of inhibition and the her vulnerable underside, so to speak.
And yet there’s no denying that for much of its running-time, “Wetlands” is an exercise in excess that too often forgets that what isn’t shown is frequently more stimulating than what is. By the close of the film you’re likely to feel a sense of relief—and maybe the need for a shower, something that young Helen has too little use for.