SXSW 2024: ‘Natatorium’ Submerges Viewers in Dreamy Hues and Suffocating Gloom

Credit: @Bjartsýn Films

There are a lot of things about Iceland that feel really magical, possibly none so much as the idea that a relatively average upper middle class home might just have a full size swimming pool in the basement. ‘Natatorium,’ the first feature from writer/director Helena Stefansdottir not only gives us this enchanting indoor opportunity to submerge, but also bathes the entire setting in dark, dreamy, hues and suffocating gloom. This story of a highly dysfunctional family keeps many of its secrets shrouded as the narrative unfolds.

The film opens as teenager Lilja (Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir) comes to stay with her estranged grandparents Áróra (Elin Petersdottir) and Grímur (Valur Freyr Einarsson) while she auditions for an international performance group with the hopes of getting away from Iceland and her detached father and step-mother. While it is clear that Lilja has not had much interaction with her grandparents it takes a while, pretty much the entire course of the film, to uncover why her father Magnús (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson) and aunt Vala (Stefania Berndsen) had kept her protected from the family secrets. Also currently living with Áróra and Grímur is Lilja’s uncle Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson), Vala’s twin brother who is bedridden and cared for by Áróra as he battles a mysterious ailment. As we come to understand that Áróra is at the center of the family’s shared trauma we are never really sure what her end game is. She seems to practice a religion that no one else takes part in as we are also given hints that there could be witchcraft behind her actions. The motivations for the character never become clear.

I enjoy a narrative that drops me into the middle of a family drama already in progress and typically I don’t mind being given hints a little bit at a time as the full picture comes into focus. However, ‘Natatorium’ does falter in the pace at which it gives out the little bits of truth. I spent most of the film unsure of what happened that was so bad as well as who was responsible for the mysterious traumatic acts in the past. We are left unsure what is going on with Kalli’s illness and why, unsure why the family still even communicates with the matriarch, and honestly unsure how folks can be in a house with a filled pool in the basement and truly believe that it has been empty for years. Perhaps pools are maintained differently in Iceland, but I’ve found that I can tell there’s an indoor pool the moment I walk into any building that has one! The viewer has been left out of the conversation in an attempt to build tension and mystery and never truly feels let in, even as the story wraps up.

While the plot itself could have been tighter, the detail in the design of the film is impeccable. The biggest strength of ‘Natatorium’ is its feeling of isolation. While everyone is free to come and go from the house (and the family) as they please, no one seems to feel that freedom. The dark, rich colors give the feeling of rooms being smaller and walls closing in. The viewer feels trapped in a situation they don’t truly understand but feel the danger in. With only a couple of scenes taking place outside of the central household we see how every character revolves around the dangerous whirlpool that seems to have been created by Áróra. From the goldfish bowl in Kalli’s room to the aquatic costume Lilja wears for her auditions, we are continually reminded that these characters are dog paddling in a bog they can’t escape. Although Stefansdottir did not completely stick the landing with this one, it still gets me excited for what she offers as a filmmaker for future projects. Her ability to deftly command a slow burn is clear, I just may have liked to see it get a little out of control.

SXSW 2024: ‘Natatorium’ Submerges Viewers in Dreamy Hues and Suffocating Gloom