Wetlands came out of Sundance with plenty of buzz for being shocking for its disturbing sexual content and brazen display of sexual acts. It was that movie every year that someone got up and walked out of because they were just so disgusted. As such it was at the top of my lists for must sees at SXSW.
Unfortunately Wetlands doesn’t live up to its reputations because it completely abandons itself. As if too timid to address the very sexual abnormalities it brings up the film instead opens with everything it has and then runs to the safety of the normal before it can really start to open up.
Director: David Wnendt
Release Date: August 22, 2013 (Germany)
What is supposed to be so controversial about Wetlands, which is based on a controversial book of the same name, is its lead’s predilection with bodily fluids and kinky sexual escapades. Helen is a teenage girl who we learn is obsessed with bodily fluids and sex to the extent that she gets sexual pleasure from her hemorrhoids and is on a lifelong mission to see just how dirty she can make her vagina (we witness her rubbing it on a urine covered toilet seat). However, after a lifetime of not treating her hemorrhoids she causes an anal fissure while shaving and must be rushed to the hospital. There she concocts a plan to get her separated parents back together while she treats her male nurse to more and more vivid sexual fantasies.
The first issue arises that the movie just isn’t that terribly shocking to anyone who has ever been on the Internet. Maybe there’s a generational gap somewhere so that older audiences are still appalled and shocked by blatant sexuality on screen, but most of what you see can be easily found on the web in even more graphic fashions. The movie, while full of many gross out moments, is more disturbing than it is truly shocking. There are definitely boundaries pushed in one sense, but they’ve all been broken in another.
A bit of shock coupled with an interesting character makes for a great movie, though and the first 15 minutes of the film actually seem to be leading to this. A jaded viewer can’t ding a film too much for simply not shocking them. The real problem arises when you realize that shock is all there is. The first 15 minutes of the film establishes an interesting character as we’re sucked into Helen’s world of sexual deviance, but the moment she is whisked away to the hospital the film seems to entirely forget about the protagonist it was developing, instead focusing in on her boring relationship with her parents. Helen becomes a character you’re no longer interested in and because of that the “shocking” fantasies (four men orgasming onto her pizza) the film starts exploring seem like just attempts to shock instead of actual looks into the character.
Wetlands does attempt to play with the unreliable narrator concept a bit as Helen’s fantasies and realities start to blur together. We’re never quite sure what she’s imagining and what she isn’t by the end of the film, leaving the overly tidy conclusion to the film to be somewhat suspect in its truth. This approach does add an extra level of interest to the film overall, but it hardly saves Helen as an interesting character and thus hardly saves the movie.
Thanks to a lack of well constructed characters and the film’s abandonment of its most interesting aspects in the beginning Wetlands becomes shocking simply to shock and that does not make a good movie. You’ll probably continue to hear a lot about it because people love talking about mainstream films that push sexual boundaries, but it really isn’t worth the conversation since it doesn’t do anything with the frontiers it pushes to.