The HoloFiles

SXSW REVIEW: Natatorium

By George & Josh Bate

Natatorium review

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another as a condition in which an individual intentionally causes illness in another individual. Typically manifesting as parents purposefully making their children sick, the disorder, perhaps more commonly referred to as Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, creates a host of diagnostic issues for medical and mental health providers and constitutes a subtle, often undetected form of abuse. Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another has frequently appeared as a key plot element in various films and television shows, including The Sixth Sense, It, Run, and Sharp Objects, all of which convey the disturbing nature of the illness. It makes sense that this disorder has featured prominently in such thrillers and horror films given the terror inherent to the disorder: a person purposefully and perplexingly inflicting pain on a loved one.

Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another takes centerstage in Natatorium, a new Icelandic psychological thriller premiering at this year’s SXSW. Helmed by Helena Stefánsdóttir in her feature directorial debut, the film follows Lilja (played by Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir), an eighteen-year-old who decides to spend time living with her estranged grandparents Áróra and Grímur (played by Elin Petersdottir and Valur Freyr Einarsson respectively) while she auditions for an art performance group. Also staying in the ominous house is Lilja’s uncle Kalli (played by Jónas Alfreð Birkisson), who suffers from a mysterious illness. When Lilja’s aunt Vala (played by Stefania Berndsen) is alerted to Lilja’s presence in the household, Vala steps in to get her niece away from the house, which is harboring a dark family secret.

This house in question is the sole setting of Natatorium. With the exception of a brief beginning which depicts Lilja’s journey to the house, shots of the outside world are extremely limited and fleeting, creating a palpable sense of claustrophobia that runs throughout the film. This would be fine if the house in question was cozy and welcoming, but that’s far from the case. Painted in a dark shade of blue that engulfs the entire house, the setting is cold and harsh, fitting given the family secret buried in the house. 

Natatorium review

The audience is introduced to this family and their home through Lilja, an innocent teenager unaware of the family’s history and why her father is panicked that she is staying in the home. Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir, in her film debut, is a charming lead as young Lilja as she quickly makes the audience care for her amidst the family’s ominous undertones. 

Lilja is surrounded by members of her family clearly affected by some deep rooted secret. Her grandmother, and the matriarch of the family, Áróra is kind and welcoming on the surface, but harbors an inner coldness ready to break through. Áróra is the primary caregiver of Lilja’s uncle Kalli, who is bed-ridden with an inexplicable illness. The role of Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another in the film’s narrative is introduced through the relationship between Áróra and Kalli early on and sets a decidedly unsettling tone for the remainder of the runtime. Unfortunately, beyond setting this tone, the film does little unique with this disorder as a plot point, which eventually and disappointingly fades into the background.

While succeeding in sustaining this tone for its duration, Natatorium lacks an intensity and unique horror to its narrative. The film is certainly set up as a tense psychological thriller or horror movie and yet never truly tries to instill fear in its audience. The complex dynamics of the family sets the stage for plenty of drama, but the plot stagnates as it fails to progress much beyond what it achieves in the first act. The family secret core to the narrative unfolds predictably and lacks the proper execution to make this twist effectively scary or disturbing. What results is a film with plenty of potential, performances to admire, and a tone that unnerves.

Natatorium review

The title – Natatorium – refers to a strange indoor swimming pool in the basement of the family home. It’s made clear that this pool, ominous in its total blackness, is tied to the family secret somehow. The production design of the pool, and the house more broadly, is fantastic, while Kerttu Hakkaranien’s cinematography seeps the setting in gorgeous darkness and shadows. The resultant film is one that is visually beautiful, but ultimately cold and uncomfortable. This is clearly the point from writer/director Helena Stefansdottir and, in this sense, she succeeds in her goal of creating a more cerebral psychological horror film heavily dependent on its tone to foster terror (albeit with mixed results).

VERDICT: 6/10

Natatorium is a different kind of haunted house movie, one that unsettles more than scares in its focus on a dysfunctional family harboring a terrible secret. Confident directing from Helena Stefansdottir complements stunning production design and cinematography to create a psychological thriller contained to a single, ominous house. Unfortunately, elements of the plot, including its incorporation of Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, meander and resolve unsatisfactorily and predictably. More positively, the film manages to unnerve like all great psychological thrillers do and Stefansdottir proves that she has an iron grip on a foreboding tone, even if the plot could do with more eventfulness.

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