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Original title: Feuchtgebiete

D: David Wnendt / 109m

Cast: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Marien Kruse, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Peri Baumeister, Edgar Selge, Clara Wunsch, Ludger Bökelmann, Bernardo Arias Porras

Helen (Juri) is a rebellious teenager whose mother (Becker) and father (Milberg) are divorced; she wants nothing more than for them to get back together. Thanks to her controlling mother’s obsession with cleanliness when Helen was growing up, Helen has developed an opposite fascination with hygiene. This has led to her suffering from haemorrhoids and having an obsessive interest in her own bodily fluids, in particular those generated by and from her vagina. She gravitates to unclean toilets and wears her underwear for days at a time. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, and uses vegetables to masturbate with. She constantly challenges those around her, and affects a disinterested, yet provocative demeanour.

She does have a friend, Corinna (Kruse), but otherwise Helen doesn’t gravitate to any of her peers (though she does have a variety of sexual encounters). She reflects on her childhood and her mother’s abusive behaviour, but most of all she muses on her personal hygiene. However, when a burst of shaving results in her sustaining a cut to her anus, it creates an anal fissure that leads to her ending up in hospital and having an operation to remove part of her anus. Recovering in her hospital room, and attended by male nurse Robin (Letkowski), Helen is told she cannot leave until she has a bowel movement. Finding herself attracted to Robin, and using the situation to try and reunite her parents, Helen delays her release, but her childhood memories keep intruding, and it leads her to a clearer understanding of the trauma that she has been suppressing, and which has propelled her into being the person she is.

Robin becomes her confidante, and though he’s in an off-again-still-off-again relationship with teaching student Valery (Baumeister), he’s still hopeful that they’ll get back together. Valery does her best to speed up Helen’s recovery, but lacks the deviousness that Helen brings to the situation. And as the time for her leaving does approach, the likelihood of Helen’s parents being reunited seems remote.

Wetlands - scene

Those viewers whose gag reflex isn’t particularly good would do well to steer clear of Wetlands, as it’s a movie unafraid to go where practically every other movie fears to tread. In terms of body horror, this is a movie that even David Cronenberg might pass on, but David Wnendt’s adaptation – co-written with Claus Falkenburg – of Charlotte Roche’s novel is by turns comic, darkly dramatic, surreal, choc-full of squeamish moments, and occasionally bizarre. It’s a smorgasbord of cruelty, nudity, self-abuse, dysfunction, psychotropic nightmares, and casual sex, but it’s also possessed of a warm-hearted centre and is boosted by a raw, fearless performance by Juri that pushes more than a few boundaries to one side – and then comes back and tramples on them.

Vigorous and unnerving, Wetlands is a visceral trawl through the mind and life of a young woman for whom “normal” means rubbing her haemorrhoids on dirty toilet seats and making her own tampons (which she swaps with Corrina). Helen’s sense of propriety is so far out of whack that it’s amazing she has anyone close to her: she has no fear and no appreciation for the feelings of others, and alienates almost everyone in her path. That she remains likeable at all given all this is a testament to the script and Juri’s performance, which is often breathtaking. Juri inhabits the character of Helen with such gusto and disabling charm that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into her world – no matter how luridly disgusting it may be from time to time – and with her cheeky grin and unruly curls, she keeps Helen sympathetic throughout, even during the scene where she coldly berates Corinna for being pregnant. There’s a wealth of unexpected pathos beneath Helen’s ebullient, manipulative, mocking persona, and Juri keeps it all there, just close to the surface, threatening to succumb to it on several occasions but reining it in at the last second.

Helen’s combative relationship with her mother is agonisingly rendered by Juri and Becker, while the sad dependency she feels toward her father is reflected in the quiet, unforced performance of Milberg. Less fulfilling or convincing however is Helen’s relationship with Robin, which seems included as a way of giving Helen a chance at a quieter, more “normal” life. He also seems too much of a nice guy to fall for Helen’s ruinous antics, and Letkowski’s ingenuous portrayal never strays far from being bland and a trifle tame, leaving the viewer wondering what Helen sees in him. Also less convincing is Helen’s consultant, the patronising and insensitive Dr Notz (Selge); he’s the nearest the movie comes to having an authority figure to challenge but the character is too much of a cartoon to be effective as anything else.

With its clutch of spirited performances, Wetlands fares well when it focuses on the dysfunctions and disappointments of family life, and the ways in which people see the nuances of their life as defining them – there’s a great fantasy scene where Helen’s mother is dying and her last thought is about whether or not she’s wearing clean underwear, and which leads to a priceless moment straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). It’s also a highly stylised, visually inventive movie that offers a dizzying variety of close ups, point of view shots, flashbacks, and tightly edited scenes and sequences (thanks to Andreas Wodraschke). There’s even an animated sequence near the beginning that sets the tone of much of the fantasy/nightmare elements. All are well-staged and coordinated by Wdendt who shows a keen feel for the material and a determination not to pull any punches when it comes to Helen’s physical and sexual bravado.

By making Helen such an uncompromising character, it’s down to the viewer to decide just how far they want to go with her on her journey, but aside from all the notions of mental illness, sexual ethics and social acceptance, the movie is a surprisingly warm and nurturing experience, its gross-out moments (including the surprise ingredient in a pizza that should have take away sales plummeting) not as randomly added to the storyline as it appears.

Rating: 7/10 – not as morbid or deliberately confrontational as it may seem, Wetlands is all about love and acceptance, and the trials one young woman goes through to attain those; not without its flaws, the movie is still a mesmerising, emotional roller coaster ride, and not for the faint-hearted.