“What the hell just happened?!” asked the man in the seat next to me as the lights came up on a Sundance screening of Wetlands. He was laughing, and so was I, because, quite frankly, we were both totally baffled. And in love with what we’d just seen. And a little embarrassed to be in love with it. There were a lot of feelings.
Wetlands, based on Charlotte Roche’s debut novel, Feuchtgebiete — which was derided as porn while also becoming one of the world’s best-selling novels in 2008 — had gained instant notoriety as soon as the Sundance catalogue came out. “Oh, is that the one with the picture of the girl with the finger up her butt?” is the usual response when I tell people I’ve seen it. The catalogue description (it’s in the World Dramatic Competition) begins: “Meet Helen Memel. She likes to experiment with vegetables while masturbating and thinks that bodily hygiene is greatly overrated.” Something about it reminded me of Wish You Were Here, the 1987 explicit British comedy about a girl who curses like a sailor and sleeps with every man in sight. My parents took me to see it when I was 9 and the movie left me traumatized for years, though I’d probably love it now. I actually rearranged my schedule to fit a screening in after interviewing Aubrey Plaza and having her ask me, “Have you seen that one Wetlands? I just keep hearing the craziest things.”
Advance word (or warning) meant that at least most people in the theater knew what they might be getting into and were up for the ride. “I hope nobody’s here for a nature documentary about natural wetlands, because they’d be in for a surprise,” said German director David Wnendt by way of introduction. Yes, in this case “wetlands” refers to a woman’s “damp areas.”
The German-language film, shot in Berlin, opens on what looks like a close-up of a butt crack, but is really the crease of a thigh meeting the calf of a bent leg. It’s just Swiss actress Carla Juri as 17-year-old Helen skateboarding barefoot. Ha! Ha! you think. This won’t be as raunchy as they say. Then comes the first line: “As long as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.” Helen sticks her finger up her butt and keeps skating. She will spend much of the movie with her finger lodged up her butt.
She hops off the skateboard and walks into a filthy public restroom flooded with inches of brown water. Again, she is barefoot. (A loud groan went up in the theater around then.) Helen squirts zip cream onto her finger and puts it on her hemorrhoids. The camera zooms in on a dried pee spot on the toilet seat with a hair sticking out of it and keeps on zooming in, through the hair, down to the hungry microbes growing within it. Cue opening credits.
“My mother told me it’s really hard to keep a pussy clean,” says Helen when we return. And since she finds cleanliness of that level impossible — or perhaps just wants to rebel against her mother — she’s decided to turn herself into “a living pussy hygiene experiment.” She proceeds to rub her bare genitals on the toilet seat, then sticks a finger down there to do a smell test. “I have very healthy pussy flora,” she announces cheerily.
That healthy flora is catnip to a certain type of man with certain predilections, Helen explains, in an early monologue. A little stank is helpful in weeding out the duds, because who wants to be with a guy who doesn’t like the smell of sex? She picks up a young buck who catches a whiff of her at a roadside food stand and jerks him off in the parking lot, taking her hand covered in spunk home for her collection of “sex souvenir chewing gum.” Then she “borrows” vegetables from her parents’ fridge for a bathtub masturbation experiment. The results? “Cucumber: Okay. Ginger: Sucks. Carrot: Bingo!” (She later masturbates with an avocado seed and gives birth to an avocado plant.)
Does this all sound like a little much? Despite the shocked groans and riotous laughter that regularly burst through the theater, hardly anyone walked out. Wnendt’s direction is energetic, packed with humorous fast cuts and visual jokes — he’d been shooting, he said later, for something between Trainspotting and Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 erotic rock movie 9 Songs. And Juri is so completely charming as Helen that her bodily fluids obsessions come off not so much gross as the fascinating quirks of a dreamer and romantic with an admirable zest for sex and life. There are no judgments here, she’s both damaged by her childhood, and simply a lively girl who’s extremely comfortable with her own body.
Stories of sexual poop fetishes, girlfriends swapping used tampons, and a pet rat found while throwing up in a toilet all follow, intercut with the central story line, in which Helen winds up in the hospital for anal surgery following a shaving injury, and uses her hospitalization to try to get her divorced parents back together. While in the hospital, she strikes up a flirtation with a handsome male nurse, Robin, who seems turned on by her frankness and love of bodily fluids. Again, it’s very much to Wnendt and Juri’s credit that everyone in the theater was rooting for those two crazy kids.
Oh, and did I mention there’s also an operatic sequence in which four men jack off on a spinach pizza?
We, the audience, were all in such a bizarre good mood during the Q&A that every question, including, “What were your inspirations?” was met with uproarious laughter. “It’s an autobiography in a way,” Wnendt deadpanned.
He explained that his intention had not been to “make the most gruesome, most shocking film there ever was.” But those bits had all been in the book, and he had to keep them to stay true to the spirit of it. It was in the storytelling that he had to be creative, because 90 percent of the book takes place in the hospital. “The film begins like a big bunch of flowers, really very colorful, and kind of lures you into the film, so you’re not scared off right away,” he said.
The best moment came when someone asked him to explain how he’d shot the pizza scene. It turns out that they used a mixture of real and fake semen. “So we had to find out ourselves, like, what’s the best way to make sperm, and how to ejaculate it in front of the camera.” They also used twenty pizzas and a special high-speed camera to capture the ejaculation in slow motion. And hired porn stars because they were the only ones “able to, like, really perform when the cameras were on.” It just so happened that that day was the one day they had a female assistant camerawoman working. “She didn’t know what would happen, so she was, like, standing next to the camera in front of a pizza and a really big penis and trying to pull the focus.”
We all laughed some more and headed home; I was so giddy I kept cracking up every time an image from what we’d just seen popped into my head. “That was the most original, most crass film I’ve ever seen,” said a young man on the bus ride home. Indeed.