Although the filmmakers do a great job of keeping the tone light and the lead actress (Carla Juri) is extremely charismatic, the surface of this startling German coming-of-age film is gross and the core is filled with incredible pain. Bottom Line: Difficult to actually watch but rewards those who do. (JLH: 4/5)
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Wetlands is a new German dramedy about “Helen” (Carla Juri) a transgressive exhibitionist fresh out of high school. The film, based on Charlotte Roche’s novel, deals with serious issues and has heavy overtones—albeit cleverly camouflaged both in trailers and by press information.
Wetlands begins humorously, as Helen deals with the uncertainty of her future and turns to vegetables for comfort… in the most sexual and not at all healthy kind of way. There are shots of Helen in a bathtub, sampling her masturbation vegetables—which range from cucumbers to ginger—before she reveals a special craving for avocados. Such scenes are told with a light touch, which goes a long way towards disguising events that are actually pretty disgusting. Are we to believe Helen when she spins out an elaborate yarn about men ejaculating onto pizza? Truth and even truthiness are left deliberately unclear.
Helen’s extremely vivid imagination shifts back and forth between the real world and her fantasy world—which is filled with graphic imagery and brightly colored animation sequences. In one instance, she talks in voiceover about her mother’s obsessive need for cleanliness, especially as it concerns the toilet bowl. As a result, Helen tells us she has a special love for dirty toilets. The animated sequence which accompanies these reveries shows Helen’s journey down a public toilet filled with germs and bacterial life. Scenes such as these are as disgusting as they sound and go way too far (showing vomit, fecal matter, and menstrual blood). Helen is clearly an “unreliable narrator” who wants to shock us, but since it’s never clear whether these graphic scenes are happening in the real world or just in Helen’s fevered imagination, it becomes a bit easier over time to actually sit back and admire her stylish bravado.
Then, once the filmmakers have us hooked, they shift into more serious territory, as Helen zeroes in on her conflicts with her parents. (Note that these two characters don’t get names of their own beyond “Helen’s Mother” and “Helen’s Father.”) Helen has multiple scenes with her mother, including flashbacks to happier times as a little girl before the birth of her younger brother. Are Helen’s self-reports merely verbal assaults that signify aggression toward her mother? Limited maternal comfort, such as it is, comes though her relationship with best friend “Corinna” (Marlen Kruse) whose soft, round, feminine figure is the opposite of Helen’s thin, taut, athletic build.
Helen’s endearing side appears when she meets “Robin” (Christoph Letkowski), a male nurse who tends to her in the hospital after she injures herself. Robin gets to see the sweet side of Helen as her helpless qualities come out and she becomes a much more sympathetic character. Robin can see that her transgressive exhibitionism is just a cover for a sweet, nice, middle class girl in need of some serious self-examination.
By the end, Wetlands actually becomes quite compelling in a weird kind of way, primarily because of the terrific and talented Carla Juri. Her dazzling smile combines with her energy and charisma to make Helen’s outrageous behavior bearable, and the glistening pain in her eyes generates a tremendous amount of sympathy. Stay to the end, and you too will want to know what is going on with Helen, and you too will hope that this likeable young women gets her happy ending.
Although I will admit to having been grossed out from time to time, I was not bored for one single minute. Wetlands certainly held my attention while I was in the theatre, and good girl that I am, I spent days afterwards pondering what it all meant.
Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/04/14)
Top Photo: Carla Juri as “Helen”
Bottom Photo: Carla Juri as “Helen” and Marlen Kruse as “Corinna”
Photo Credits: Peter Hartwig
Q #1: Does Wetlands pass the Bechdel Test?
Yes, it emphatically does pass the Bechdel Test!
Most of the conversations with her mother relate to issues with her father, but not all of them. In critical flashback scenes, Helen remembers how her mother deceived her and violated her trust. Similarly, although Helen and Corinna often talk about boys, they also commit to one another as “blood sisters,” making it clear that whatever they might say in words, what’s really at stake is their relationship with one another.
Q #2: Does Wetlands have a female screenwriter?
Although IMDb lists her as one of screenwriters, Sabine Pochhammer says she made limited contributions at the beginning of the project. In her own words, the Wetlands screenplay was developed and written by Claus Falkenberg in collaboration with director David Wnendt.