Wetlands is unquestionably one of the most graphic films of recent years (and yes, that does include Lars Von Trier’s latest two part endeavor from this year, Nymphomaniac). Wetlands is based on the best-selling German erotic novel “Feuchtgebiete,” and follows Helen, a seriously twisted young girl who fetishizes bodily functions, sexuality, and is obsessed with making hygiene-related experiments (whatever you’re picturing that involves, it’s way worse). Although the film pushes controversial boundaries in very similar ways to Nymphomaniac and even A Serbian Film (2010), Wetlands manages to escape the “gross just to be gross” pitfall that some of its counterparts can be guilty of. Sure, she lands herself in the hospital after inflicting a self-induced anal fissure (I know, I know—even just writing that made my stomach turn) due to some really aggressive shaving, but Helen also displays a curiosity for the world around her, yearns for her neurotic, divorced parents to reunite, and continually struggles to answer some pretty profound questions that make up her childhood. All of this, in combination with an excellent performance from Swiss actress Carla Juri, gives the film a surprising weight.
Another aspect that makes this coming-of-age story so successful is its strong cinematography. The lighting is gorgeous, and will often make one scene harsh and alienating, and another dreamy and intriguing. A visual motif of the film seems to be Helen ending up in the dark. Whether it’s her parents turning off the lights at night in one of the many flashback sequences or a group of doctors in present day having a cheery birthday party and shutting the door as Helen looks on, she always seems to end up alone and barely visible in black, murky lighting. Perhaps this shows the character’s inability to connect with the people around her, or maybe it just highlights her confusion about life and relationships. The camerawork is also constantly shifting to address the mood of any given scene, keeping the visuals consistently stimulating and fresh.
Wetlands will leave you, right along with Helen, with many questions. Is she attempting to stay in the hospital because she can’t be alone? Because she wants to recapture her youth and just wants to be nurtured and taken care of? Her motives are never completely transparent, but that’s part of why the film captures the confusing, capricious nature of youth so well. Though Wetlands goes through great lengths to get these points across via absolutely gut-wrenching images and sounds (the ending sequence borders on unbearable), it never loses its underlying, affecting themes. My only concern for the success of this movie is that it will be unable to receive the much-deserved recognition for its plot and filmmaking due to the hype around its NSFW content. This movie is in no way for everyone (I see many walk-outs in its future), but if you can stomach the plethora of disturbing visuals and concepts, you won’t be let down in the slightest.
Wetlands opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.