Natatorium // A SXSW Review: Great Gowns, Beautiful Gowns

I was excited to see an Icelandic horror film because many of my favorites are from places I have never been to. So, I was lowkey rooting for Natatorium when I saw it would be at SXSW. Especially after discovering the title would also be Helena Stefansdottir’s feature film debut. I can honestly say she has a keen eye as a director. I also look forward to seeing more from her even though this movie was not my jam. 

Natatorium follows a young woman who stays with her estranged grandparents in the city while waiting to hear if her audition landed her a spot in a performance group. The grandparents seem happy to be getting the chance to know her, but they also seem a bit off. The grandmother has a religious ritual she does in a pool in the basement of the house. The grandparents are also tending to one of their adult children, who is confined to a bed with a mysterious illness. Needless to say, there is a lot of mystery in this movie.

Building a mystery

Lilja (Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir) is the girl with the dream who decides to move into her Grandparent’s house behind her dad’s back. Because we are following her, we are left in the dark about the secrets that tore this family apart alongside her. This is possibly the most frustrating thing about the first half of the movie too. People allude to her aunt (and namesake) drowning as a child and then changing the subject. However, everyone leaves us hanging (although many of us have suspicions about what happened with the original Lilja) while everyone who comes to Grandma’s house gets cagey. 

Another mysterious component is Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson), who is bedridden with the vague reason of “weak lungs”. Why, out of all of the surviving children, would he choose to stay with his parents? While I loved watching him put on makeup, and the reveal that comes via the note he left his sister, Vala (Stefanía Berndsen), did make me lean forward a bit, he is one of the many pieces of this puzzle that does not quite fit.

Another thing that really salted my tines, is Lilja’s dad, Magnús (Arnar Dan Kristjánsson). He is so worried when he finds out she is living with her grandparents. However, he drags his new pregnant girlfriend to the home, but still refuses to tell Lilja what the danger is. This feels too polite for what the movie is implying about the grandmother. What is the point in sending your sister to the home before taking your new partner, you have also left out of the loop, to this house to do nothing about the situation? I still don’t understand why Vala and Magnús tell Lilja to leave but refuse to tell her why she should go. This was maddening because it felt like this unfolded this way just so we could get the final moment. 

This is a beautifully designed filmed

I found Natatorium way too slow and do not feel the payoff was worth the journey. However, it is a visually stunning movie. The scenic design is so beautiful that I would also risk whatever the danger is to stay there. The color palette is delicious, and the home this all takes place in is gorgeous. So many scenes belong in a museum. Helena Stefansdottir’s understanding of space and ability to craft cool pictures will benefit a stronger script. Hopefully, a horror script with more bite and less empty vibes. I am excited to see her next outing as a director though. I wish I could download the stills from my brain to everyone else who might struggle to finish this movie. However, if you want those beautiful moments, you will have to see Natatorium for yourself.