Helena Stefánsdóttir’s haunting debut feature Natatorium draws you into a world where familial bonds hide disturbing secrets. It follows 18-year-old Lilja as she stays with estranged grandparents while auditioning for a performance troupe, only to discover their beautiful modernist house conceals a strange sickness.
With an impressive creative team behind the camera, the film assembles a gripping atmosphere. Cinematographer Kerttu Hakkarainen’s graceful camera glides through the cold domestic spaces, lit in an eerie dark blue by production designer Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson. The gorgeous lead actress Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir and formidable Charlotte Rampling-esque Elin Petersdóttir bring intrigue and menace to their complex mother-daughter dynamic. And the score by Jacob Groth builds with mournful tones.
Though some may find the plot frustratingly vague, Natatorium remains a standout for its tone and visual imagination. Tapping into universal themes of family dysfunction, it suggests the monsters that can lead us are sometimes dangerously close to home. This haunting thriller sinks you into its icy waters where family ties can pull you under.
With vivid style and a superb Elin Petersdóttir performance, Stefánsdóttir’s debut provides a memorably unsettling familial mystery that leaves a chilling impression. Now let’s dive deeper into this new talent’s fresh vision.
Family Secrets Surface in Chilling Icelandic Drama
When 18-year-old cellist Lilja arrives at her estranged grandparents’ striking modernist house, she expects an uneventful stay while she auditions for a performance troupe. But darkness lurks within this cold, pristine dwelling.
Lilja’s father Magnús specifically warned her against contacting his ominous parents Áróra and Grímur. And when her aunt Vala learns Lilja disobeyed, she rushes over in a panic. Still, Lilja remains confident nothing is amiss in her relatives’ immaculate abode.
Yet troubling signs appear. Gaunt, dying uncle Kalli lies captive in a sick ward. Grandmother Áróra harbors intense religiosity tied to deceased family. And the house contains a swimming pool that, contrary to claims, overflows with water.
While rehearsing her demanding cello performance piece, Lilja explores her grandparents’ world, confronting the reality behind this family’s cultured veneer. As she unwittingly participates in Áróra’s bizarre rituals, the reasons for her father’s fears grow clear. But can she pull away before she’s drawn too far into her relatives’ dark secrets?
With an emotional mystery anchored by a charismatic young lead, Natatorium lures you into its icy depths where devotion hides cruelty and truth floats just below the surface.
Family Bonds and Burdens
Natatorium plunges into the complex dynamics of family, where love blurs with control. At the story’s heart lies an ailing son kept cloistered, a deceased daughter memorialized to extremes, a granddaughter named in her honor. This triangulation reveals unterschieding notions of caretaking between generations of women.
While matriarch Áróra embraces ardent ritual to immortalize her lost child, Lilja’s father Magnús shields his own daughter from such stifling grief. Áróra’s faith has distorting force – perhaps even life-threatening for those drawn into its vortex. Yet well-meaning aunt Vala enables Áróra’s eccentric behavior too, torn by guilt and loss.
Here devotion turns damaging, both bonds and secrets binding this family in dysfunction. Only clear-eyed outsider Irèna dares ask why ailing Kalli doesn’t receive proper hospital care, despite extreme sickness. But her lone voice of reason makes little impact on his relatives’ closed world.
The swimming pool, this modern house’s anomaly, symbolizes such murky family ties. Áróra treats it as a temple, using its waters for ad hoc baptisms and solitary late-night plunges. Naming granddaughter Lilja in honor of her deceased sister hints at plans to groom a successor. And when Lilja frolics in the pool with her boyfriend, we sense Áróra watches with intentions unclear.
Does the pool represent rebirth or sacrifice – or both, intricately linked? Its shifting role in the family’s rituals epitomizes the thin line between commemoration and coercion that Áróra toes. And in the end, we’re left pondering if bonds nurtured under such conditions prove poisonous or profound.
An Icy Visual Palette Reflects Family’s Inner Coldness
Helena Stefánsdóttir crafts a frigid backdrop that mirrors the characters’ chilly emotional states in Natatorium. Through striking cinematography and production design, she forges an environment where warmth cannot penetrate.
Cinematographer Kerttu Hakkarainen lenses the film to unsettling effect. Gliding through the house, her creeping camera turns domestic spaces threatening through careful framing. Deep shadows summoned through precise lighting choices shroud rooms in ambiguity. And a monochrome color palette dominated by blacks, whites and glacier blue tones creates a cold, austere mood.
Meanwhile production designer Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson fashions a distinctly eerie atmosphere. The home itself resembles an art gallery, all hard lines and pebbled glass. Various rock-like textures throughout the production design make feelings of coldness and hardness palpable. The swimming pool stretches this further – part luxury spa, part underground lair.
Between creepy medical equipment in uncle Kalli’s sickroom and the basement pool’s simultaneously lush yet foreboding aesthetic, every environment reflects characters’ inner worlds. Display cases memorializing a deceased daughter indicate grandmother Áróra’s inability to let go of grief. Kalli’s squalid quarters reveal how family obligation traps and sickens. And the pool’s Column attraction hints at sacrificial beginnings.
Through vivid style, Natatorium externalizes its characters’ emotional undercurrents. And in the process, it crafts an environment where warmth and trust cannot survive.
Compelling Portraits of Family Dysfunction
Natatorium thrives on insightful acting that reveals the inner lives of an emotionally damaged family unit. Powerful performances imbue even opaque characters with psychological complexity.
As the dutiful yet defiant daughter Lilja, lead actress Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir displays maturity beyond her years. With thoughtful restraint, she captures a young woman both intrigued and unsettled by her relatives’ eccentricities. Her innate curiosity about their cloistered world remains tempered by slowly dawning unease. We watch Lilja incrementally wake to disquieting truths, compelled by Arnarsdóttir’s layered portrayal.
Meanwhile as controlling matriarch Áróra, Elin Petersdóttir exudes formidable presence. With tightened lips and laser-focused stare, she constructs a woman who commandeers her family with quiet certitude. Hints of mania glinting across her hooded eyes suggest a psyche still grieving past trauma, while her upright posture indicates steely resolve. With subtle intensity, Petersdóttir makes palpable Áróra’s complex interiority.
And as Áróra’s husband Grímur, Valur Freyr Einarsson provides an affecting foil. His warm demeanor poignantly contrasts his wife’s chill while also enabling her eccentricities. Einarsson injects welcome pockets of lightness while emphasizing his character’s strains.
Through captivating performances, Natatorium exposes the undercurrents of obligation, grief and secrecy that shape this family. Even when plot details remain obscure, the actors ensure we comprehend the emotional forces at play.
Unsettling Tonal Shifts Reflect Family Rifts
Natatorium distinguishes itself through masterful tonal modulation that keeps viewers on unstable footing. By pivoting between domesticity and rising horror, Helena Stefánsdóttir parallels the rupture within Lilja’s family.
During initial scenes, an almost banal normalcy predominates. Lilja settles comfortably into her grandparents’ stylish home, bonding with relatives over meals in a manner familiar to many families. Even while hearing veiled warnings about her grandparents, she brushes them off.
Yet cues something is awry creep at the story’s edges – brief chilling interactions, unexplained remarks, odd behavior dismissed as quirky. The film constantly feints toward revealing its central darkness, only to skirt away.
This zigzagging between warmth and wrongness maintains an unsettling push-and-pull. Twice when piano chords strike horror movie-esque notes, they transmute into Lilja rehearsing her audition cello piece – false jump scares softened into domesticity. We revolve between ease and unease much as Lilja navigates between her daily routine and confronting this family’s burdensome past.
Only in later scenes does the tension crescendo, no longer subsiding. As Lilja delves deeper into her relatives’ secrets, their congenial facade cracks for good. The initially balanced pacing gives way to a relentless escalation mirroring the story’s emotional trajectory.
By cleverly mimicking its characters’ oscillations between facing and ignoring truth, Natatorium creates a potent ungrounding effect that pays off powerfully.
A Disturbing Portrait of Family Bonds Gone Awry
With its cryptic storyline and opaque themes, Natatorium may frustrate viewers craving narrative clarity. Yet as an emotional tapestry exploring inner darkness, it weaves a haunting spell. Through striking visuals and an obsession with water’s symbolic power, debut director Helena Stefánsdóttir conjures a subtly terrifying world where family ties conceal cruel impulses.
At its best, the film operates on a visual level rather than a strictly logical one. Captivating cinematography and production design externalize the characters’ twisted psychology into their environment. And actors like Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir and Elin Petersdóttir infuse even mute reactions with resonance with exquisite subtlety.
If some find Natatorium’s muted storyline frustratingly vague, its artistic execution remains undeniably stellar. Stefánsdóttir announces herself as a directorial talent to watch for creating tone and eliciting nuanced performances. And with its themes of grief distorting family bonds, Natatorium cuts to universal truths about how darkness can permeate even the closest human connections when left unchecked. This sad, sinister portrait of family dysfunction stays with you long after the credits roll.
With its cryptic storytelling and muted performances, Natatorium thrives more as art film than mainstream entertainment. Yet patient viewers will find themselves richly rewarded by its ominous tone and visual artistry. This haunting glimpse into domestic darkness heralds an auspicious debut for Helena Stefánsdóttir worthy of discerning fans of psychological thrillers and family drama.
- Strong visual style and cinematography
- Eerie, atmospheric production design
- Standout performance by Elin Petersdóttir
- Haunting musical score
- Effectively builds an unsettling tone and sense of mystery
- Plot is vague and cryptic at times
- Pacing feels slow in places
- Some may find ending unsatisfyingly ambiguous
- Character motivations are not always clear