The Movie Waffler First Look Review - NATATORIUM | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - NATATORIUM

Natatorium review
A teenager uncovers sinister family secrets when she stays with her estranged grandparents.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Helena Stefánsdóttir

Starring: Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir, Elin Petersdottir, Stefania Berndsen, Jónas Alfreð Birkisson, Valur Freyr Einarsson, Arnar Dan Kristjánsson

Natatorium poster

Ever since 1942's Cat People, the makers of horror movies and thrillers have been incorporating swimming pools into their work. Horror movies like Sinister, It Follows, The Final Destination, Let the Right One In and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 have featured sequences utilising pools while thrillers like Deep End, Swimming Pool and Swimfan have made central plot elements of pools. John Badham swapped Les Diaboliques' famous bath tub for a college pool in his American remake Reflections of Murder. 2024 has given us Night Swim, a hokey supernatural thriller about a haunted pool.

What is it about the swimming pool that makes it such an ominous device in movies? Perhaps it's because it's an attempt to control nature, a man made structure that is still privy to the untameable wrath of nature. Or maybe it's the seductive side of the pool. How many movies have featured scenes in which temptresses coerce men into joining them in a pool with siren-like beckoning?

Natatorium review

Icelandic thriller Natatorium draws on both these ideas to some degree. It features a swimming pool that played a role in a death which may not have been entirely accidental. It's also used by women to lure their prey. 18-year-old Lilja (Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir) uses the pool in question here to seduce her boyfriend (Stormur Jón Kormákur Baltasarsson). Her grandmother, Arora (Elin Petersdottir), uses it to beckon Lilja towards some uncertain fate.

In order to attend a musical audition in the city, Lilja stays with her grandmother and grandfather (Valur Freyr Einarsson), whom her father, Magnus (Arnar Dan Kristjánsson), has kept her away from. When Magnus learns Lilja has visited his parents behind his back he panics and calls his sister Vala (Stefanía Berndsen), who is equally alarmed and rushes to persuade Lilja to stay with her instead. Lilja dotes on her grandparents however and refuses to leave.

Natatorium review

When Lilja discovers there's a swimming pool in the basement of her grandparents' home, which her grandmother bathes in every night, she initially uses it to frolic with her boyfriend, unaware that she's being watched by Arora (Petersdottir's resemblance to Charlotte Rampling makes it impossible not to recall Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool in this moment). That the religiously devout Arora is fine with this sort of thing going on under her roof is the first hint that she may have sinister intentions towards her granddaughter.

Arora's living room features a shrine to her daughter Lilja, who drowned in the pool as a child, and for whom her granddaughter was named. The shrine is decidedly Catholic, but we also see Arora dip Lilja beneath the pool in the manner of the Baptist church. The suggestion is that Arora has experimented with several varieties of faith to deal with her grief. Might she also be willing to indulge in some darker beliefs? There's talk of how Friday the 13th began as a Nordic celebration of female power before Christianity gave it a sinister, superstitious association. This invocation of Norse paganism raises the idea of the blót, the Viking tradition of sacrificing animals and humans to appease Gods, a ritual often held in bodies of water. Arora's other son, Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson), is bedridden in a sickly state. Vala argues that he belongs in a hospital, but Arora insists on keeping her in her home, but to what purpose?

The Nordic countries represent arguably the most atheistic region of our world, and yet many of its films have a spiritual undercurrent. None of the characters in Natatorium explicitly raise the idea of pagan sacrifice, but it's an unspoken fear that permeates through the film. Director Helena Stefánsdottir stages a dinner celebration by positioning her camera in the centre of the dining table and panning slowly across the faces of the assembled characters. With each circuit of the table we see rising apprehension on the faces of Lilja's family members as they come to realise the danger this young member of their brood might be in.

Natatorium review

We never hear anyone speak of what Anglo-Saxon folk-horrors might call "the old ways," but we see the reaction on the faces of people who have made discoveries offscreen. Stefánsdottir takes a similar approach to the world of her film as Demián Rugna with his Argentine chiller When Evil Lurks, dropping us into a world where people live with the accepted fact that dark forces surround them, and leaving it to the audience to catch up.

Stefánsdottir only begins to delve into her film's folk-horror aspects as it moves towards its conclusion however, with most of the movie a rather grounded familial mystery. It's never quite as effective as it promises, chiefly because the threat to Lilja is so ambiguous that there's very little opportunity to build suspense. We get the sense that Lilja is in danger in the grand scheme, but she's never placed in the sort of situations that might make us apprehensive for her safety in the moment. Natatorium may prove more effective on a second watch, when the viewer has a greater idea of what exactly is at play here, but its frustrating refusal to explore its themes more openly make it unlikely to entice many viewers back for a second dip in its icy narrative waters.

 premiered at International Film Festival 2024. Release details have yet to be announced.

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