John Waters fans will recall the plot of Pink Flamingos, in which warring factions compete for the title of Filthiest Person Alive. Helen, the heroine of Wetlands, could make a strong claim for the honor. Played by Carla Juri, Helen is at the center of this ambitiously disgusting German film, which is based on Charlotte Roche's controversial 2008 novel.
Directed and co-written by David Wnendt, Wetlands shows us sights not usually seen on mainstream movie screens, and graphic sex is just the start. Pick a bodily discharge, any bodily discharge, gender-specific or otherwise. The chances are good that it appears abundantly in Wetlands, and that at some point characters are smearing it on each other's faces.
Some scenes are cringe-inducing and painful, including the depiction of an act of self-harm that's one of the most disturbing sequences I've ever seen in a film. Other moments are cringe-inducing and broadly comic, such as a slo-mo montage of men defiling a pizza in a uniquely male way. The imagery and the scene's musical cue, Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube," whimsically allude to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you may be laughing at the same time that you're retching.
It all makes for a strong sense of shock value. (John Waters fans will recall that he wrote a book with that title.) Does it make for worthwhile viewing? Hmm. I can say that in addition to being gratuitous, the revolting scenes are in the service of story and character. They help us understand Helen, a young woman whose enthusiasm for sex, drugs and very grimy bathroom fixtures clearly masks profound unhappiness.
We're shown the origins of her unhappiness in a series of flashbacks to her troubled childhood. Her father (Axel Milberg) was callous, and her mother (Meret Becker) was cruel. Their divorce traumatized Helen, and as an adult she schemes to reunite them. She was especially traumatized by a particular horror her mother perpetrated. This is disclosed near the end of the film, and it informs much of what we have seen.
Much of Wetlands takes place in a hospital. Helen ends up there after she injures herself while shaving a body part that is, I imagine, awkward to groom. She is cared for by a friendly male nurse (Christoph Letkowski), and in their interactions we see rare tender moments in an otherwise aggressively unromantic film.
Helen is an interesting woman, no doubt. The question is whether the film's provocations are worth enduring for the insights they provide into her character. If you have a taste for the gruesome -- if you're a horror fan, say -- you may like Wetlands very much. Meanwhile, your date may be watching with eyes tightly closed.