“Man, people were gagging in the aisle.” Those are the kind of words one expects to hear about a horror film from Eli Roth, not a generally good-natured romantic comedy. However much of the buzz surrounding David Wnendt’s Wetlands has centered on its controversial aspects and it’s easy to see why. The weak of stomach will want to steer far away but those made of sterner stuff will find this to be the sweetest comedy about an anal fissure they’ve ever seen.
That’s right, Wetlands has as a crucial plot point the disgusting anal fissure suffered by Helen (Carla Juri), the flame-haired heroine out there looking for love. At first glance, Helen looks like a rebellious refugee from a teen comedy. She’s tall, beautiful, blazing a trail on her skateboard with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. In short, Helen is very easy to love right away. But then the first thing you learn is that she’s always had hemorrhoids. And that she isn’t especially fond of bathing. Uh, where is this going exactly? Why, it’s headed straight to the most disgusting, heinous toilet ever, where Helen enthusiastically drops trou and plops right down on the filthy commode. For most people that scene alone will be enough to send them screaming to the exits, but trust that it gets more disgusting from there.
The trick faced by Wnendt in adapting Charlotte Roche’s grotesque novel is how to make the shocking and vomit-inducing aspects seem kind of normal, and he does that by taking them at face value. No easy task when Helen, who narrates frequently through voice-over, talks about her way of attracting men, of which she apparently has many suitors. She attracts them with her unwashed scent, essentially, made all the more foul by rubbing her genitals (the phrase “pussy mucus” is used) on places that desperately need a good cleaning. So it’s no surprise that Helen is also somewhat obsessed with every type of body fluid. After one sexual encounter with a guy she keeps his crusty, gnarly semen on her hands, enjoying the scent. Forging a friendship with the shy but easily converted Corinna (Marlen Kruse), the two do things with dirty tampons that are nowhere on the instructions.
So how in the world can a film like this possibly be anything other than a complete circus? The various relationships in Helen’s life are given just as much attention as her bizarre actions, and go a long way informing us how she ended up the way she is. Her divorced parents and a desire to see them reunited play a part, but also some cruel life lessons imparted by her mom clearly had an impact. After a gut-churning razor accident causes a nasty anal fissure, Helen is sent to the hospital where she flirts with a handsome nurse (Christoph Letkowski) who can’t resist her brazen dislike of societal norms. As the love story develops and Helen’s past is explored Wnendt wisely tones down the barf bag material, but not before it starts to get overwhelming. A dream Helen has about a pizza and a group of guys serves no purpose other than to raise the upchuck factor. But the few quiet moments found in-between the energetic editing and direction are genuinely heartfelt, and the flashbacks to Helen’s childhood insightful.
A perfectly scored, electric soundtrack featuring Peaches and Canned Heat keeps up the blistering pace. Carla Juri also proves to be a live wire as Helen, in a challenging performance that most won’t see and many will misunderstand. Wetlands is empowering in its way, chronicling one confident woman’s sexual journey set completely on her own terms. Too gross for most people but definitely a fertile conversation starter, Wetlands is one of the year’s most unique romantic comedies.