“What’s this movie about again?” Allen asks me as we settle into the seats at the theater. I lie to him for the third time and say that it’s a German documentary about women artists. “No Nazis?” he asks. “No Nazis,” I assure him. By the time he sees the bloody tampon it’s already too late.
Before we go any further, let me tell you about my partner. Allen is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle man you will ever meet. He loves his family, bright clothing and singing along to Jaguares in the car. He is afraid of our guinea pigs. Once, when he was putting on a shirt, he told me that I needed to prepare myself because “I look really, really good in purple.” And last Saturday, just hours before he and I sat down to watch Wetlands, he had been seriously upset about his lack of passion for animals other than baby elephants. “I’ve tried to love baby giraffes,” he lamented as he mixed himself a frothy green beverage meant to prolong his health through the disgusting taste of kale and apple combined, “but they’re just not the same.”
Now, let me tell you about Wetlands: It’s the story of Helen, an 18-year-old who likes nothing more than dirty sex. She likes to do it in filthy bathrooms, she likes to finger her ass until her fingers are brown with butt sleaze and she uses her “pussy slime” as perfume. Helen’s story, which alternates between real time and flashbacks of her sexual exploits, is told from her room at the hospital, where she’s been holed up after cutting her ass open while shaving around her hemorrhoids.
The movie, based on the novel of the same name (or, alternatively titled Moist Peaches) has been hailed as both WTF and NSFW. According to The Guardian, people have fainted at the reading of the book, and according to various sources, the movie was equally controversial at film festivals, where seasoned movie-goers (those who have sat through such monstrosities as Brown Bunny) walked out in disgust. Of the seven of us in the theater, only one person left angrily during the movie. During a scene in which tongs that were only recently employed to remove a homemade tampon from a young woman’s vagina are placed back on the grill to be used at a family barbecue, a man in the third row stood, picked up his popcorn and left the theater shaking his head. Kids these days, right?
If I am to be honest, and I am always honest, the book is much worse than the film. Hailed as “unrepentantly vulgar” and “a crude and cleverly marketed piece of pornography,” book Helen is unrepentantly dirty, drinking the vomit of her friends and spitting into the water bottles of candy stripers. She delights in leaving smears of menstrual blood all over the hospital and is turned on by the thought of a father and son finding the used tampon that she has balanced on the handrail of an elevator. Movie Helen, by comparison, is very tame. Even without a rating and a loud reminder that the movie is NOT SAFE FOR WORK on the poster (what kind of work would you watch this movie at?), the book’s in-your-face grossness is replaced by clever lighting and suggestion; if you want to know with what fervor Helen is licking the anus of her male nurse, you’re going to have to do some imagining. (Spoiler: It is a very fervent rimjob.)
To be even more honest, none of the things in the book really grossed me out. In fact, as I read about some of Helen’s more conventional encounters, I actually found myself turned on. Charlotte Roche, the author of the book says this is common, that men agree that the book is somewhat erotic, while women need to be pushed hard to admit it. This, to Roche, is ironic, considering that the book is about female sexuality, about taking ownership of your sex and about being in control. It’s not just pornography (although she admits she’s put in some scenes to make the reader horny), it’s more like a filthy call to arms.
And this is why I take Allen to see the film. You may not believe it, but I am hardened against disgusting images. I don’t know whether it’s due to my time on the internet or whether I’ve always been somewhat desensitized, but whatever other people call THE MOST DISGUSTING THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN, has little effect on me. Allen, however, is different. He enjoys comedies and action movies about the end of the world. He loathes films with unnecessary violence and, over six years ago, when we were celebrating our six-month anniversary, he handed me my gift – the newly released criterion collection version of Salo – with the remark that it wasn’t an appropriate anniversary present and that he didn’t know why I would want it. (Two reasons: One, like Wetlands and other gross-out movies such as A Serbian Film, it’s an important look at sex and power; Two, it makes my home DVD collection seem impressive. I’m not above a little pandering to our dinner guests.)
All of this makes Allen the perfect movie companion. If anyone is going to faint during the film, it’s going to be him. If anyone is to even cough in disgust as Helen throws up in an underground toilet and then adopts the rat that comes by to eat the vomit, it’s going to be Allen.
I let him buy a hot dog and a large popcorn.
While Allen has been blissfully unaware what this movie is about aside from the fact that it’s in German, we run into our first problem right in front of the auditorium. There, while an usher takes our tickets, Allen narrows his eyes at the poster next to the door, the one that loudly proclaims how base and disgusting the movie is. I rush him inside where we sit in front of a couple who are loudly discussing the play party they went to last night. Allen looks around and then picks up his phone. He’s going to look up the film and I have to stop him. I tell him to finish his hot dog before it gets cold. Then I make him hold my soda until the lights go down.
The film begins with an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a newspaper (which, I forget) denouncing Wetlands as garbage. It must never, states the letter-writer, be made into a film. Ever. Ever. Allen looks at me. There is betrayal in his eyes. He knows that I have lied to him, and worse, we have to move to the front row because I can’t read the subtitles. The next scene features our protagonist as she tromps through a dirty underground toilet, sloshing her feet through muck and rubbing her ass all around the seat, which is covered in piss and other unidentifiable stains.
Allen puts his popcorn away.
Unfortunately, Allen stays conscious throughout the rest of the film, even when I loudly whisper edits that have been made to keep the movie playable in theaters to him. “In this scene,” I say, as Helen and her friend Corinna take more drugs than any reasonable human should ingest and expect to remain alive, “the book is a little different. You see how they’re just flushing the vomit down the toilet? Well, in the book they put the vomit in a bucket and drink it because there are still drugs in it.” Allen coughs, loudly and urgently.
“In this scene,” I whisper as Helen stuffs a vegetable into her vagina, “the book is a little bit more descriptive. Helen also enjoys putting the shower head inside herself and filling her vagina with water until she feels like she’ll burst. Then she pushes until the entire thing feels like it’s going to fall out.” Allen looks at me in disbelief and sucks in a deep breath. Then he waves me away, too polite to even shush me.
When Helen and Corinna exchange homemade menstrual supplies and cover each other in menstrual blood, I say nothing. This scene is done right and Allen is looking away. I offer him some of my soda. He glares at me. The same happens when Helen fantasizes about men angrily jerking off on her pizza, getting off on the idea of men having rape fantasies about her. The semen used to glaze the pizza in the movie, you will be happy to know, was a mix of real semen and other liquids. I wish I had known this before I watched the film; I would have been certain to explain it to Allen in detail. “According to Vulture,” I would have said while chomping loudly on the uneaten popcorn, “the men were porn stars and they had to use a special high-speed camera to capture their jizz geysers in slow motion.” I regret being robbed of this moment, just like Helen regrets biting into a piece of pizza that is perfectly delicious but devoid of ejaculate.
As the movie rolls to a close, I ask Allen what he thought of the film.
“Why didn’t you tell me what it was about?” He asks as we step outside and start towards the car.
“Would you have gone if I had?” I ask.
“Nope!” He says and giggles. “Because I don’t like those types of movies. You know that.”
This is an excellent chance for me to ask Allen what he thought of Helen, her family and their secret (NO SPOILERS) and the whole point of the film. But first I ask him whether he thought it was disgusting. “Kind of,” he says.
“You looked away several times. Did you ever feel like you were going to faint?” I ask.
“No. It wasn’t that gross. Except the scene with the blood and the one with the poop and then the other one with the rat. I don’t like rats. But it was more gross because she was impolite and inconsiderate. You can’t go around a hospital spilling blood everywhere. That is unsanitary and not good for the other patients.”
This is an interesting point because, on one hand, Allen is right: It is gross to leave bloody bits of yourself in places where others may find them, but in the context of the movie it makes some sense. Helen is fighting, if not the patriarchy, then her mother, who demands that all of Helen must be clean. This, I tell Allen, is something that young women hear all the time, that they must be clean and not smell and not do anything disgusting. Isn’t Helen’s subversion of this rule really kind of admirable?
“No. It’s gross.”
“What if it was a male protagonist? Would it be as gross?”
Allen lapses into silence. We are driving through downtown San Francisco now and as he thinks about his answer, he is also intent on making sure we don’t crash and die, something he is also very concerned about. That’s why we usually wait until we get home if we’re going to talk about a serious topic. But we’re not going home, we’re going to Costco and then to a party. We won’t be home for hours. If we’re going to iron out our differences about the film, it’s going to have to be now.
“I think that if they made it more funny, I would be less disgusted.” Allen says. “Like in There’s Something About Mary, that was funny.”
“You mean when the guy got his semen in Cameron Diaz’s hair?”
“Yeah! But then they made a joke about it and it was okay. There is nothing funny about putting an avocado in your vagina.”
“So if they made a joke about it...”
“It would be okay. Well...no. It wouldn’t be funny like There’s Something About Mary. It was a bad movie, Mark. It was too in-your-face without any jokes.” His voice is stern.
Here we reach an impasse: I thought the movie was excellent, like an Amelie for adults, and he thinks that the sexuality was too much. And perhaps that’s why the people in the audience at readings of the book (no images, just words) were fainting and the lone man in the third row walked out of our screening of the film. Not because the movie itself was disgusting (it’s too light and airy for that), but because it shows a woman in control of her own sexuality. A woman who, at 18, gets sterilized because she doesn’t want to have children. A woman who’s not afraid of her bodily fluids and wears them proudly. A woman who wants to subvert the tampon industry by making her own at home, even if they do sometimes get stuck. If that’s too in your face at the movies, what would it be like if all women acted like this all the time, not worrying about wearing clean underwear or being concerned about their reputations because they chose to have as much sex as they wanted to.
I lay this all on Allen and he agrees that he may have been wrong initially due to the graphic nature of the film and the way Helen’s sexuality was presented, and while I don’t get an admission of “this was actually a pretty good film” what I do get is the permission to buy it on DVD when it comes out for a rewatch.
“Maybe, I was wrong.” Allen says. “It’s just that blood and poop get to me. I don’t know if I ever want to eat again.” He does look a little queasy. I promise never to do this again (fingers crossed behind my back) as we park and walk to Costco. Outside the store, a young woman in a Giants shirt is selling candy for a good cause. It is five dollars for two packs.
“Give me five dollars,” Allen says. “It’s for a good cause. We can eat candy while we shop.”
Well, I think as Allen pops a bunch of pretzel M&Ms into his mouth and chews on them happily, perhaps there’ll be a grosser movie next year, one that will actually render Allen unable to eat. For the moment there’s nothing I can do but take hold of the shopping cart and walk into the store, intent on grossing him out by reliving the scenes that made him most uncomfortable.
“Those M&Ms remind me a little of what vomit feels like,” I say. “Didn’t Helen have a crunchy vomit towards the end there? I wonder if she might have eaten some of those, too.” I’m reaching. Hard.
Allen pales noticeably anyway. Mission accomplished.
Images via Strand Releasing