Natatorium (2024)

Natatorium had its North American première at the SXSW 2024

A natatorium is an indoor swimming pool, but it is also a relatively obscure word, so while the title of writer/director Helena Stefánsdóttir’s feature debut serves as an advertisement of what is to come, part of that is precisely the word’s mystificatory status. For there really is an indoor swimming pool buried in the structure of Natatorium – and hidden in the basement of the claustrophobic home where its events take place – but at the same time, the film certainly is a mystery, repeatedly laying out questions without straightforwardly answering them. The only hope of getting to the bottom of its enigmas is to take a deep breath – and a deep dive – and to see what lurks beneath the surface.

17-year-old Lilja (Ilmur María Arnardóttir) has temporarily taken up with her estranged grandparents Áróra (Elin Petersdottir) and Grímur (Valure Freyr Einarsson) – who are delighted to have her – while she auditions to join an international theatrical group. Lilja hopes to get out of Iceland and to work abroad far from her father Magnús (Arnar Dan), much as he had long ago moved away from his parents’ home in the city to live on an island, and seems no more committed to his current, pregnant girlfriend Írena (Kristín Pétursdóttir) than he was to Lilja’s mother. Magnús’ younger sister Vala (Stefania Berndsen) has also moved out, and although living in the same city as her parents, seldom visits. Only Vala’s twin brother Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson) has stayed, struggling with his sexuality, ailing with a vague but crippling respiratory condition and bedridden under Áróra’s close care. Both Magnús and Vala appear alarmed that Lilja has freely and happily moved into the very home that they managed to leave behind years ago, but neither seems capable of articulating why, given the peculiar code of silence in which the family has become immersed. 

As the audition process goes on, Lilja stays longer than originally anticipated in this modernist home with its watery features: interior walls painted aqueous blue, the goldfish bowl decorating Kalli’s room, and the swimming pool downstairs. Áróra is strange, and observes various idiosyncratic religious practices, but Lilja takes to her, and is soon joining her at night in the pool for midnight swims that are also baptism-like rituals. Áróra also secretly takes Kalli to the pool for rites of a more extreme variety – despite assurances to her other two children that the pool is empty and no longer in use. There is a weird vibe in this place: significant looks are exchanged, conspiracy and suspicion cohabit, and truths go largely unspoken. Lilja is too busy competing for a place in the perfomance group (for which she dresses as a water nymph), and sneaking her boyfriend Davið (Stormur Jón Kormákur Baltarsson) into the house at night, to notice. She is still only an adolescent, not yet fully initiated into her family’s ways – and Áróra has taken it upon herself to play high priestess and hierophant in these mysterious rites of passage.

Different explanatory frames are offered, with a certain slippage between them. The first is literal: Áróra is a psychopath and serial abuser, and the rest of the family tiptoes around this and keeps a safe distance, in a synchronised swim of uncomfortable complicity with their matriarch. Certainly the grandmother does appear to be systematically poisoning Kalli, via a kind of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, while subjecting him to a routine of life-endangering water treatments – and there are further suggestions that she was responsible for the drowning, decades earlier, of her fourth child, Lilja, and that her eponymous granddaughter may be her next target. The second is mythological, or supernatural: Vala, who herself runs a business making herbal remedies, and slips her own medicines to Kalli to counter Áróra’s, suggests to Lilja that all the women in the family are witches; and there seem to be odd clinging plants, and even ghosts, emerging unnaturally from the water. The third is allegorical and symbolic: this family, already drowning in its shared sense of loss and grief for the other Lilja, has become broken by its own mutual toxicity, and invests hope in Lilja for a way to break free from the cycle of guilt and recrimination, even as she dips her toes in the genetic pool that is ultimately her inescapable legacy of generational trauma.      

Any, perhaps all, of these readings might be true, but Natatorium, adapted in part from Celeste Ramos’s short story Swim, likes to keep the waters murky. It may at times drag under its own languorous pacing, but Stefánsdóttir’s domestic drama, with its suitably suffocating single setting, creates in the viewer a sensation akin to being submerged in a hermetic world – or a goldfish bowl – where the living float just above the dead, and sometimes sink to their level. In this family, as perhaps in all, the roots of tragedy may be repressed, denied or buried, but they never stay underground for good.

strap: Helena Stefánsdóttir’s domestic mystery dives deep into the uncanny aquarium of an estranged family’s secrets and dysfunction

© Anton Bitel