Natatorium – International Film Festival Rotterdam

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer and Director: Helena Stefansdottir

This absorbing Icelandic gothic story, written and directed by Helena Stefansdottir, is set in a beautiful but strangely disturbing old house. It belongs to a couple, youthful grandparents, and from what we can see in the dimly lit scenes, it is filled with beautiful objects, paintings and musical instruments. When fresh-faced Lilja asks if she can stay while she’s in town for a drama audition, her grandparents welcome her in.

There is some sort of tension. Lilja refuses to take phone calls from her father, Maggi. Grandmother Áróra insists on putting her through a bizarre ritual in front of an improvised shrine. Later Lilja discovers the house has a basement swimming pool – the ‘natatorium’ of the title. At first no one speaks of it, and when Lilja tries to bring it up, she’s told there’s no water in it. Lilja is undaunted by the evident taboo, and is determined to discover the truth. Hints of its existence are suggested by Jacob Grott’s gloriously watery sound design. And dappled light, suggesting reflections off water, plays over Áróra as Lilja secretly observes her, standing silently at an open door.

The house holds another secret. Lilja’s uncle Kalli is confined to his bedroom, a pale, wasted figure, constantly tended by Áróra. Jónas Alfre∂ Birkisson gives Kalli an almost Christ-like air of suffering. Áróra’s tenderness, however, is put in doubt when she injects him with medicine which she insists is just ‘the usual,’ and then refills his water glass from a fish bowl in which three goldfish swim.

Helena Stefansdottir is surely right to leave this strange sequence unexplained although the trapped goldfish later seem to symbolise three of Áróra’s adult children. The oldest, a son, Maggi, lives on a island and is preoccupied with his new, much younger partner. Kalli has a twin sister, Vala, who runs an apothecary, selling herbal medicines. Vala is seen as a loose canon, her mother quick to blame her daughter’s alcoholism when she tries to force the family to open up about what’s happening. Gradually flashbacks reveal a childhood trauma. There was a fourth sibling, another Lilja, who drowned in mysterious circumstances. All three living siblings seem trapped in a single element.

Meanwhile the male characters, Áróra’s husband Grímur, Lilja’s boyfriend, Davi∂, and her father, Maggi, all seem supine – unable or refusing to look at the disturbing undercurrent in the house. The tension between Maggi and Lilja is partially explained: she has defied his injunction not to vist the grandparents. Maggi hints at imminent danger, yet refuses to explain further.

Natatorium is beautifully shot by Kerttu Hakkarainen. In the opening sequence we are taken through an abandoned house, mixed with dark, mirrored patterns. Mirrors play a significant role as do doorways, offering glimpses of darkened interiors. Water is a recurring motif as is the use of make-up and masks and the sudden smashing of glass.

In contrast is a wonderful climactic set piece. It is initially framed and brightly lit so we see all the dysfunctional characters sit down to a supposedly celebratory meal. Then the camera pans round, showing each uneasy face. It’s going to be a long night.

Elin Petersdóttir’s Áróra is a model of chilly stillness, while lmur María Arnardóttir as Lilja brings welcome liveliness and normality. Vala, the most conflicted character, is convincingly played by Stefania Berndsen, even when the part requires her to utter overly pointed remarks about witchcraft and the significance of Friday 13th. If Natatorium has a fault, it is its eagerness to ties up all the ends of the plot. At its strongest, it evokes a powerful, lyrical sense of mystery

Natatorium has its World Premiere at International Film Festival Rotterdam on 28 January.

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Lyrical Icelandic mystery

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