There are a few disturbing scenes in Wetlands. But they’re not the ones that are vulgar or sexual or unhygienic. In fact, the most bizarre scenes in director David Wnendt‘s new film are also surprisingly joyful.
Let’s take, for example, the scene in which Helen (Carla Juri), the 18-year-old main character who winds up in the hospital with an anal fissure after a shaving accident, swaps tampons with her best friend in an expression of their never-ending love for one another. The two friends, laughing, paint each other’s faces with their menstrual blood. For some reason, even though it’s blood, this all feels charming. The pair are happy and have a wonderful friendship. In a similar spirit, there is also the scene when Helen wakes up, turns on “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches, and groggily sits down on the toilet, where she yawns and picks her nose and eats her boogers. Joyfully.
Wetlands, which is based on a novel by Charlotte Roche and opened in the US this month, is a movie that depicts a world in which a woman can be perverse, vulgar, disgusting, and sex-crazed, and yet her character isn’t reduced to those traits, nor are they displayed as something shameful. We can watch a scene in which Helen is invited to the home of her older male coworker so that he can shave her pubic hair and instead of the scene feeling creepy or uncomfortable—as I imagine it would in almost any other movie—it actually ends up feeling sort of intimate and sweet. She’s nervous, but she’s there because she wants to be there. She isn’t harboring any hopes that this sexual experience will turn into a romantic relationship. As viewers, we’re not made to feel that we should be concerned for Helen or pity her. It’s not portrayed as a degrading experience, in spite of the traditional connotations of such an act.
The most remarkable thing about Wetlands, perhaps, isn’t its gross-out factor (although that’s pretty remarkable, too), it’s the fact that the film so simply and clearly links Helen’s sexuality with feelings of happiness. As she’s rolled through the hospital after her successful surgery, everything slows down and the lighting takes on a warm glow. She’s relaxed and she’s happy, and she reaches down below the sheet that’s covering her and touches herself. It’s a moment that’s private, that isn’t sexy or dramatic or exciting. It’s just a young woman who loves her body and appears, in this moment at least, to have an uncomplicated relationship with it. She feels happy, so she wants to touch herself.
Another pleasant surprise occurs in a scene when Helen looks out the window to see Robin (Cristoph Letkowski), her nurse and love interest, sitting outside and flirting with his ex-girlfriend. She doesn’t seem upset; she just seems happy to see him. She lies back in bed and starts to fantasize about him being in bed next to her. How many scenes of women’s sex fantasies in films have you seen in which the woman imagines some sensual kisses, warm caresses, maybe the missionary position? Almost all of them. In this fantasy, though, Helen flips Robin (who looks weirdly like Ryan from The O.C.) over onto his stomach and gets behind him. It’s sort of a shocking moment, and reminds you of how few films ever show hetero couples engaging in sexual acts like this, with the woman in an explicitly dominant position.
The scenes that are truly disturbing in this film are disturbing in a different way. As the film continues, we begin to realize that Helen has experienced some lasting trauma in her life, and that the real message of the movie may not be as lighthearted and uplifting as it seemed at the beginning. In one of Helen’s flashbacks, we watch as her father humiliates her mother at a dinner party—he makes a public joke out of Helen’s difficult birth and speaks disparagingly of its effects on her mother’s vagina. Helen’s mother makes a scene and her embarrassment and his insensitivity are painful to watch. Throughout the film, Helen also continues to have strange dreams and flashbacks, slowly approaching the revelation of the main traumatic event of her childhood.
With a good portion of the movie devoted to Helen’s childhood trauma and her unhealthy relationship with her parents (as well as their unhealthy relationship with each other), this film could easily have been just another uncomplicated portrayal of how bad experiences in a girl’s past and lack of attention from her parents will turn a woman into an attention-seeking slut. Some will argue that it does link the two together in an unforgiveable way. But Wetlands’s treatment of Helen’s character doesn’t essentialize her that way. Although she does end up getting together with her male love interest, we’re not left to assume that he “fixes” her or that she gets any less vulgar than she was. Instead, her sexuality is a central part of their connection and it’s portrayed as something he appreciates about her rather than something he’d like to change.
Helen is really rad and funny and brave. Viewers are meant to like her and care about her and admire her in spite of her disgusting habits and fucked-up tendencies. For a movie that’s all about a woman who loves sex and doesn’t shy away from bodily functions, that’s rare.
Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino is a writer and reader living in Portland, Oregon. She is a frequent contributor to Bitch.