David Wnendt’s Wetlands, based on Charlotte Roche’s novel, asks a simple, revealing question of audiences, one that’s never been asked quite so specifically: “How many depictions of anal fissures are you willing to allow in your charming romantic comedy?”
Think hard about this. Your answer (which you don’t have to share) probably says a lot about you, and also determines how much you will enjoy Wetlands, a coming-of-age story that I will never, ever, ever watch again.
Carla Juri is our protagonist Helen, introduced walking barefoot through a swamp in a vomit-worthy public bathroom, before lovingly rubbing herself against a toilet seat.
She … has some issues with hygiene.
But she’s our protagonist all the same: in a hilarious Goodfellas reference that feels like a Simpsons joke, she announces, “Ever since I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.” For better or worse (and definitely for grosser), we’re on Team Helen as far as the film is concerned.
Juri makes it easy. She has the lovable enthusiasm of Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha even when she’s licking walls, fucking every single vegetable in the crisper and rating their relative value, and possibly permanently damaging her body just to hang out a bit longer in the hospital, because she likes the nurse.
It’s grotesque, and intentionally so (the film definitely mocks rom-com tropes). But it’s also weirdly sweet. For reasons the film makes (somewhat) clear, Helen really can’t help herself: that there’s a sadness at her core is beyond dispute, but the film never tips into saying she’s “trying to plug a hole,” or something equally annoying. All the relationships are slightly melancholy, actually. But, from moment to moment, Helen really doesn’t seem to care – she’s just doing her thing. The film weirdly morphs into a feminist body-horror worthy of early Cronenberg, while still smiling sweetly at you. Its honesty is adorable, but you might have to watch it (like me) with your face half-covered.
So that’s my lyrical telling of the film. As a counter-point, I offer this compendium of reactions I’ve seen online: “NOPE NOPE NOPE NO NO NOPE FUCK THIS NOPE NO WAY JESUS CHRIST FUCK NO STOP NOPE GODDAMNIT GROSS NO.” So there’s that.
That critic I just summarized is not wrong. But if you can make it through the gross-outs, there’s an underlying sense that Helen’s complete disregard for propriety is healthier than the repression of everyone around her, and there are several stories she’s navigating. She’s kind of a feminist punk hero, really.
But, yes, the movie is punishing – gleefully so! – in its distribution of bodily fluids and focus on flesh. Consider yourself warned.