Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete): Locarno Review

Wetlands Still H
A poppy take on boundary-pushing sexual matters featuring a stellar breakthrough performance.

Swiss actress Carla Juri explodes onto the scene in young German director David Wnendt's pop-savvy adaptation of Charlotte Roch's controversial bestseller.

LOCARNO -- Topics as varied as the use of phallic vegetables; intentional lack of intimate hygiene and the pain in the behind that hemorrhoids and anal operations can be -- and all that from a female perspective -- are what made German TV personality Charlotte Roche's novel Wetlands a controversial and much-discussed literary phenomenon. The beauty of young writer-director David Wnendt’s eponymous film adaptation, headlined by an explosive Carla Juri, is not that all these subjects are pretty much treated as candidly as in the book but that the final result is also an accessible, stylish and ultimately even sweet film.

Wetlands has cult hit written all over it and should do well with Generation-Y viewers not only in Germany, where it’ll be released Aug. 22, but also further afield, especially (though not exclusively) where the novel was also a bestseller.

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One-of-a-kind protagonist Helen Memel (Juri) is a young woman who still lives with her divorced mother (Meret Becker) but who’s fiercely determined to explore her body and sexuality on her own terms. In the eye-catching first reel, Wnendt and co-screenwriter Claus Falkenberg have Helen go to war in a spunky voice-over in which she suggests personal hygiene is overrated and then illustrate the point by having the curly, dirty blonde use her derriere to eagerly wipe a public-toilet seat clean.

Helen subsequently explores her intimate parts with different elongated vegetables -- ginger gets a “no” on her been-there-tried-that list -- and then segues, to continue her introduction of her intimate world, to a presentation of her religious mother; rich father (Axel Milberg) and best friend, Corrina (Marlen Kruse), who’s just as crazy as she is. The unusual sexual tastes of Corinna’s heavy-metal boyfriend (Florian Rummel) will be something of a litmus test for viewers, though, as narrated by Helen and staged by Wnendt, it’s mostly a humorous scene that’s over before you can take offense or be grossed out.

Indeed, what makes the film so accessible despite its controversial subject matter is Wnendt’s total command of tone, which is never vulgar or intentionally out to shock. Instead, it filters what’s being discussed through Helen’s unique, innocent if far from child-like personality and occasionally uses humor to push things close to farce.

In what’ll surely be one of the most talked-about sequences, four men masturbate onto a pizza. But the circling, slow-motion camera shot is accompanied by Strauss’s The Blue Danube, which gives the full-frontal action something ridiculously balletic (the song was earlier used to accompany boys masturbating in the Spanish cancer comedy The Fourth Floor). Crucially, in a film so full of risqué material, it’s the only time erect penises are actually onscreen.

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Juri, a multi-lingual, U.S.-trained actress from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, is perfectly cast as the independent gal who’ll try everything. Her pitch-perfect performance sets the tone, combining chirpiness and optimism with a darker undertow as it becomes clear that a childhood trauma, gradually revealed in short flashbacks, is slowly eating her up from the inside.

The notion that Helen’s stay at a hospital for a surgical intervention after an intimate shaving accident could reunite her divorced parents is as sweet as it is naïve and Helen’s interest in a handsome male nurse (Christophe Letkowski) is similarly sincere and cute, though their topics of conversation can get pretty hardcore. It’s this constant juxtaposition that makes Helen a credible and conflicted character, oscillating between boundary-pushing late adolescence and child-like hopes, dreams and fears.  

Further reinforcing the idea that Wetlands is not a controversy-tinged art film but something for the masses is the flashy camerawork from Jakub Bejnarowicz and fast-paced cutting from Andreas Wodraschke, which suggest David Fincher’s work on music videos and visually restless titles like Fight Club. Colorful production and costume design by Jenny Roesler and Elke von Sivers, respectively, further complete the attention-grabbing package.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Rommel Film, ZDF
Cast: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Marlen Kruse, Peri Baumeister, Edgar Selge, Harry Baer, Florian Rummel
Director: David Wnendt
Screenwriter: Claus Falkenberg, David Wnendt, screenplay based on the novel by Charlotte Roche
Producer: Peter Rommel
Director of photography: Jakub Bejnarowicz
Production designer: Jenny Roesler
Music: Enis Rotthoff
Costume designer: Elke von Sivers
Editor: Andreas Wodraschke
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 109 minutes.