Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands is a cinematic novel, albeit one that is almost the diametric opposite of other books that tend to get described that way. Instead of lush landscapes, sumptuous meals, and other sensory delights, its imagery is almost universally bodily, and disgusting: blood, shit, semen. Its centerpiece, so to speak, is the quite graphic anal injury its 18-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, sustains while shaving — a wound that becomes infected and lands her in the hospital, where she undergoes surgery, romances a young male nurse, and has ample time to contemplate her past and present. Early in the novel, Helen tells us, “Hygiene’s not a major concern of mine.” This may be one of the greatest understatements in all of Western literature.
Although the book’s action unfolds largely through the memories and musings of a narrator whose unique voice and point of view might be difficult to translate to film, the vividness of Wetlands‘ imagery cries out for visual representation — and the best thing about director David Wnendt’s film adaptation, which was released last Friday, is how enthusiastically it embraces this. Wnendt chooses, perhaps wisely, not to overload us with the incessant horror-movie butt shots that the text suggests. But Wetlands is a whole movie of uncomfortable, frequently tactile closeups of other kinds: childhood sunburns and smashed watermelons are framed in just the same way as all those bodily fluids.
On the periphery, if not at the very center, of almost all of these tight shots is Helen, a masterpiece of a literary character whose every thought and action seems designed to sicken the reader. Fans of Wetlands the book — and those who, like me, couldn’t exactly enjoy it but appreciated it as an revolutionary artistic and political experiment — will be relieved to know that Wnendt doesn’t water down Roche’s protagonist.
In the film’s opening sequence, Helen brazenly picks at the back of her shorts as she skateboards. Her voiceover, a tool that’s overused in adaptations but essential and effective in this one, informs us that she has hemorrhoids. When she arrives at her destination, we watch her wade through a few inches of fetid water and sit down on a nauseating toilet to apply medicated cream to her ass. Then, the camera zooms in to take us on a surreal, hysterical animated journey through the vibrant microbial landscape of the toilet seat. It’s an apt visual summation of the film as a whole, which finds a strange beauty in its heroine’s enthusiastically unsanitary way of life.
Brought to life by Carla Juri, a lovely 28-year-old Swiss actress with the face and boyish posture of a teenager, Helen is feral and mischievous, yet also deceptively intelligent and perceptive. She’s selfish, even for her age, yet not malicious. She picks up cute, random boys for public sex and takes cellphone photos of their pleasure-twisted faces, but retains an unlikely innocence in even her filthiest moments. This childish worldview is especially apparent in Helen’s greatest desire: to reunite her divorced parents, something she hopes to accomplish through her stint in the hospital.
Where Wnendt’s Wetlands departs from Roche’s book is in its resolution, which implies a certain amount of growth and learning on Helen’s part that seem purposely left out of the novel. While the tone of the book doesn’t lend itself to any particular genre (Wetlands is constantly described as an “erotic novel,” despite its mood-killing obsession with a torn-up, infected asshole), the film is a dark comedy, and eventually we learn that it is a dark romantic comedy, focused on Helen’s pursuit of Robin. Its resolution prompted Indiewire’s Katie Kilkenny to bemoan the movie’s “secret conservatism” and point out that, “In romantic comedies a final rain-soaked scene of passion often acts to wash away all implausibilities: let’s just say Wetlands is no different.”
But Kilkenny underestimates Wnendt’s agenda when she takes that “final rain-soaked scene of passion” at face value. The film is packed with subtle, feminist riffs on romantic movie clichés: when Robin shares his headphones with Helen so she can listen to a sappy mix he made for his girlfriend as he wheels her around the hospital, it’s an inversion (and a perversion) of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman’s meeting in Garden State. At other moments, Wnendt gives us images that seem to subtly poke fun at Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. His kissing-in-the-rain finale is the ultimate payoff of all those visual in-jokes scattered through nearly two hours of lovingly framed gross-out imagery: a big, sloppy guffaw at what constitutes romance in the international language of cinema.
Besides, to obsess over plot would be to miss the point of what both Wnendt and Roche are doing in Wetlands, and why his movie is such an excellent adaptation of her novel. In both versions, story is secondary to character; the book’s great contribution is Helen’s voice, and the film’s is the world as it looks through her penetrating eyes. Simply through documenting Helen’s radical embrace of her body, its various discharges, and all the lurid messes it creates, Wnendt (like Roche) throws the repression that surrounds her into relief.
By connecting her sexual appetites so inextricably to her earthy disregard for hygiene, through so many indelible images, the filmmaker mimics the book’s insistence on Helen as a force of nature — and on nature as a positive, powerful thing, from which human beings have become depressingly alienated. In one flashback to her childhood, Helen looks on as her father makes a cruel dinner-party joke comparing childbirth to the turducken he’s slicing open and her mother responds by lifting up her dress to demonstrate to their guests the reality of a C-section.
This is only one example of the parallels Wnendt draws between the father’s obsession with meat and the fruits and vegetables that nourish the women in Wetlands — as food, but also sexually and even metaphorically. While meat seems to represent callousness and violence towards nature, fruits and vegetables suggest communion with it. Helen throws what little nurturing instinct she has into the care of a few sprouting avocado pits, and in one scene, her masturbation fantasy gives rise to a vision of an avocado plant growing from her vagina.
It’s an effective visual shorthand for the novel’s frustration with our terror at our own bodies and sexual impulses — with everything we invent to keep us at a remove from those things, which are so essential to our humanity. “We’re always told that perfume has an erotic effect on those around us,” Helen observes in Roche’s novel. She continues,
But why not use our own much more powerful perfume? In reality we’re all turned on by the scents of pussy, cock, and sweat. Most people have just been alienated from their bodies and trained to think that anything natural stinks and anything artificial smells nice. When a woman wearing perfume passes me on the street, it makes me sick to my stomach. No matter how subtle it is. What is she hiding? Women spray perfume in public toilets after they’ve taken a shit, too. They think it makes everything smell pleasant again. But I still smell the shit. For me, the smell of plain old shit or piss is better than the disgusting perfumes people buy.
Yes, you’ll see a rain-soaked embrace in Wetlands. But it counts for something that Helen — who has given up some of her selfishness but none of her defiant, natural grossness — is the one who’s being embraced, by the kind of guy teenage girls scrub behind their ears and slather themselves in scented body lotion to impress. There’s nothing conservative about a happy ending like this one.