Friday, May 15, 2015

Body horror

You know that feeling you get when you've started to vomit, but haven't totally chucked up your guts? Some people call it a vurp?

Except that a vurp implies a single violent incident, not the steady rising and lowering of a reservoir of vomit in your throat, like a toilet forever on the verge of overflowing.

That's kind of what it's like watching the German film Wetlands.

And if I'm using vulgar terminology about vomit and overflowing toilets, it's only in a desperate attempt to keep pace with this movie.

There are two reasons my description doesn't quite work for Wetlands:

1) It's an exaggeration. I probably only felt that way a dozen times throughout the movie, not all 110 minutes.

2) The movie is actually good, in the end.

But boy is it gross.

It's the story of the woman you see there in the picture -- I'll say "woman," but it's hard to tell exactly how old she is. She could be anywhere from 16 to 25 (the actress was 28 at the time), and her current age computation is complicated by the fact that the story contains numerous flashbacks, only some of which feature a younger actress playing her role. It's further complicated by the fact that she wants her parents to get back together, which makes her seem stunted in adolescence even when she might be in her 20s.

That woman, as the poster tells you, is Helen, who has an almost sexual fascination with germs and bacteria -- and an actual sexual fascination with everything else. In a reckless attempt at self-contamination, she wipes her nether regions all over the tops of dirty toilet seats -- the dirtier, the better. However, in a bit of irony, her immune system doesn't cooperate with her, fighting off her every attempt to infect herself.

She does, however, have hemorrhoids, and gets an anal fissure during a shaving accident, which results in her being hospitalized. Her hospitalization forms most of the movie's present tense.

Still with me?

I could enumerate all the grossness that follows, but I'd rather describe how the overarching grossness imbues things that aren't gross with the queasiness of this movie's fixation with smells and bodily fluids.

All the actual body fluids you can imagine are present in this movie -- shit, piss, semen, menstrual blood -- but what's most insidious is how these infect the movie's regular imagery. Even something as beautiful as rain dropping on a wrought-iron gate comes to remind someone of splashes of errant urine, and something neutral that already looks gross -- say, a bowl of lumpy yogurt -- gives off the nauseating impression of a quivering mass of coagulated yeast infection.

Feeling the vurp now?

The interesting thing about this movie is that it's so beautifully shot. Director David Wnendt has a terrific eye, and this film has a unique knack for playful visuals. Perhaps because it's German, it reminded me at times of Run Lola Run's visual scheme, though Lola does not have the pristine appearance of Wetlands. Wetlands is a movie about gross things that's shot with inimitable artistic delicacy.

But it does have a much more pernicious agenda, which is to repulse us with its fascination with the swampy brackishness of the human body -- specifically, the female body. Helen is constantly sniffing, scratching, shaving, picking and penetrating, and though we don't see all of it, the parts we do see make us imagine the parts we don't. In Nathan Southern's terrific review on, he compares it to the shower scene in Psycho -- we start to think we're seeing things even when we aren't seeing them.

What I couldn't help wondering while watching this movie is whether it's feminist or anti-feminist. Certainly, Helen's liberation from the hygiene standards expected by society is a type of feminist victory, as she would have been perfectly at home without a bra or a razor at Woodstock. And Carla Juri's fearless performance and willingness to offer up her body as an insidious type of laboratory are a further bit of rebellion from those norms. But I don't know if Wetlands ultimately wants us to be grossed out by the female body, or to love it, (literally) warts and all. The novel on which the film was based was written by a woman, if that helps.

So I'm ultimately recommending Wetlands, but I'll say this:

Prepare to get wet.

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