– An air of threat comes and goes around the family at the centre of Helena Stefánsdóttir’s stylish debut

Review: Natatorium

Elin Petersdottir (left) and Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir (right) in Natatorium

Families are famously the most fertile ground for evil. Close and extended proximity between members of unequal power inevitably leads to conflicts which, if one isn’t careful, can end up being dealt with and “resolved” in perverse or sinister ways. For the exact same reasons, the family unit is also where many find the deepest, most forgiving love. Helena Stefánsdóttir’s debut feature Natatorium, premiering in the Bright Future section of this year’s IFFR rests on a rich legacy of horror films that have mined those twin dynamics to great effect, but creates its own peculiar kind of rhythm.

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We begin as 18-year-old Lilja (Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir) arrives at the beautiful designer house of her grandmother Áróra (Elin Petersdottir), hoping to stay over while she prepares for the entry exam of a prestigious art performance workshop in a nearby town. Here already, Stefánsdóttir and cinematographer Kerttu Hakkarainen set up a stop-and-start tone and tension: Lilja, looking around the house with her headphones on, jumps when she sees her grandmother approaching, but the sense of threat is immediately deflated by Áróra’s utterly normal and casual behaviour in the moment. Again and again, Lilja will see something odd — her grandmother stepping into a dark pool in the basement, to cite one recurring image — before the film will then immediately move on to depict the comfortable bond between her and all her relatives. A parallel is visually set up early on between Lilja and her uncle Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson), sick and bedridden for what seems like years, and every mention of him around the dinner table sends a very brief but noticeable chill in the atmosphere. Yet when Lilja finally meets him, they interact like a normal uncle and niece would, in a friendly manner totally devoid of all awkwardness or apprehension. Likewise, Liljia’s interactions with her aunt, Vala (Stefania Berndsen), run the gamut from intense and scary confessional conversations about the unfair demonisation of witches, to a drunken dance party in Lilja’s bedroom.

This creates an odd feeling of suspension, through which the viewer can nevertheless piece together an undeniably morbid mystery. From the very start, we learn that Lilja’s father Magnús (Arnar Dan Kristjánsson) categorically refuses to let his daughter stay at his mother’s, and Vala is similarly alarmed about her niece’s safety when she gets to her parents’ house. But no one seems able to tear Lilja away, and though it seems the director’s intention to depict the insidious pull of the familiar, the lack of follow-through from all these otherwise very concerned characters soon grows tiresome. The impression is more of a narrative convenience than a successfully realised effect: we are told about the hypnotic power of the grandparents and their house, rather than made to feel it.

Moreover, this mechanism gives viewers plenty of time to ruminate on what might be the secret keeping this family together, even as it sometimes seems to pull them apart. The few hints we are offered never truly build to anything fully coherent, beyond the vague idea of a sacrificial ritual upheld as part of a peculiar form of religion by the stone-faced Áróra. Here too, it seems vagueness is the point. But rather than make the maladaptive coping strategies of this strange family appear scarier, their depths more unfathomable and depraved, this murkiness is frustrating, and the film’s dramatic crescendo ending feels like a strangely banal way to end what was as otherwise looser, more dreamlike proposition.  

Natatorium was produced by Bjartsýn Films (Iceland), in co-production with Tekele Productions (Finland) and Silver Screen (Iceland). International sales are handled by Denmark’s LevelK, while Sena will distribute the film in Icelandic theatres in March.

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