ABJECT SPECTACLE: WETLANDS

ABJECT SPECTACLE: WETLANDS

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Wetlands_704

 

By Lauren Bliss

Wetlands lets the abject speak for the body. A film based on the best-selling autobiography of the same title by Charlotte Roche, it tells the coming-of-age of Helen (Carla Juri) who (in her words) makes her genitals a ‘living experiment’. Believing that the world is too obsessed with hygiene, Helen undertakes a series of grotesque encounters, in public toilets, with random strangers, and with foreign objects (vegetables). Much of the film is comprised of her placing her fingers into her various orifices and tasting whatever comes out. The pure disgust is slicked over with a pop sensibility, this is clearly a film marketed to teenage girls (if Bend It Like Beckham with a major case of gastro-enteritis can possibly provide a new angle into the heavily saturated teen movie market). Helen’s wayward, pubescent journey from childhood into the adult unknown is explored through a commercial aesthetic, the film’s rapid cuts, use of pop music, and heavily scripted one-liners forming a glossy ensemble that ensure cult potential.

There is something cathartic in the relentless portrayal of all that is abject about the body in Wetlands. But it’s pubescent, self-obsessed disgust with the typical metamorphosis to womanhood is marred by the force of its confrontation – as if the film is trying to be everything we lament is ‘missing’ in sex education, jamming it into the screen and demanding we take notice.

It is the story of a naïve young woman alienated from her own body and her own emotions. Desperate to bring her divorced parents together, she will horrifically mutilate her anus so that they have to be at the hospital at the same time while she is on the brink of death. Wetlands can be appreciated for its candid portrayal of adolescence (and, indeed, insanity). Apart from the sincerity of the narrative, I particularly like the scenes with Helen and her friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse). The girls take to dissolving social convention in crazy moments, stripping naked in the bathroom and smashing watermelons on the floor, or skateboarding high on drugs through train carriages. But it is a film that also cries out for attention and this makes it cringe-worthy. It belongs to an unchecked culture of spectacle, where self-exposure is automatically equated with emancipation and truth. The film – like the book – lacks recourse to fiction, to self-reflexivity, to a sensibility of shame.

The film can be read in terms of the difficulty of the personal-political distinction that characterizes feminist discourse. It is darkly humorous, but tellingly fails to comprise the personal, or the private, into its confessions of the body. Jacqueline Rose, writing in a recent article for The Guardian, reminds that freedom in sexuality, mind and body is not found in the light but precisely in the dark. Her new book Women in Dark Times calls to bring the space of unreason to the fore. Intimacy and privacy cannot, as Rose writes, be simply brought into the light without contradiction or indeed some dimension of ‘fiction’. Her words bring to mind the trouble I have with a film like Wetlands in its perverse attempt to expose the total body as a packageable story. “We are nowhere more deceived than when we present sexuality, not as the trouble it always is, but as another consumable good”[1].

In this sense, could we say that the doll from Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is more confronting, more revealing, than the ‘real’ body of Wetlands? Lars and the Real Girl is of course the indie classic where the nerdy, alienated Lars (Ryan Gosling) buys a sex doll in place of a human girlfriend and has his entire small town pretend it is a real woman. Lars is a lovable but embarrassing loner. Unable to have real human relationships, the townspeople allow him to carry out his fantasy as if his doll (named Bianca) is real. This awkward, but delightful film questions how we perceive and see the world, as well as how we perceive the body of the other. It reminded me of Wetlands in that Bianca, like Helen, draws attention to the fact that she is anatomically female. Both made me feel sick when their body was centre stage, both drew attention to how digestion, shitting, and fucking were problems for them in their encounter with others and with themselves. But Wetlands – unlike the doll – never invites the viewer to consider how we might misrecognise Helen for being something other than she is. When she mutilates, her cry for help is answered – conveniently in this instance by an attractive male nurse, Robin (Christoph Letkowski). Robin brings the film its happy ending by taking Helen from the hospital she has put herself in and carrying her home like Cinderella. A feminist Ryan Gosling might be better placed here “Hey girl, that’s not the double bind I was talking about”, for unlike the doll of Lars and the Real Girl, Helen’s abjection portends to insert something redeeming when carried off stage by the oh-so-dreamy Robin. To consider this with reference to another scene, when Helen picks her nose and eats it we get the sense the film thinks it’s putting something realer than real on screen.

Wetlands, (Germany, 2013)a film by David Wnendt, also reminded me of the scientists in A Clockwork Orange (1971), it tries to force our eyes open to the violence of the body. Ultimately, whatever disgusting thing is happening on screen, the real abjection is that this is a film that refuses its own fiction.

Note

[1] Jacqueline Rose, “We need a bold, scandalous feminism” The Guardian, 18/10/2014 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/17/we-need-bold-scandalous-feminism-malala-yousafzai

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