From Iceland — Natatorium: Where Family Bonds Crumble

Natatorium: Where Family Bonds Crumble

Published February 19, 2024

Natatorium: Where Family Bonds Crumble
Photo by
Joana Fontinha
Supplied stills

Helena Stefánsdottir’s feature debut documents the silent scream of a dysfunctional family

Following the Golden Globes and ahead of the Oscars, it might seem like January has been a particularly good month for international film releases. Poor Things, Saltburn or Priscilla, probably popped up in your conversations with friends in the past weeks. 

What will 2024 bring to Icelandic cinema? 2023 gave us Godland and solidified Iceland’s position as a lucrative filming location, with not one episode but the entire season of True Detective filmed here. As I look for my first Icelandic film of the year, I have two options. One is a mainstream comedy that’s already breaking box office numbers and the other is an unconventional psychological drama that’s also a director’s first feature film debut. I score a screener and ask a couple of friends to clear their evening plans — we’re watching Natatorium.

Just a few days later, still sympathising with the film’s characters and having many questions about unanswered plot points, I meet up with director Helena Stefánsdottir. Helena has always juggled multiple roles in her career, so we start from the very beginning. How did she start making films?

Frame choreography

A professional dancer, Helena also studied physical theatre in Paris. Shortly after completing her studies, she started making short films. “I started to be inspired by framing or I wanted to do some framing,” she admits as she tells her story. “Dance and movement in space is always what I’m most interested in. All of my films are kind of based on that.”

“This is a film about a dysfunctional family.”

Natatorium (Latin for a swimming pool) tells the story of 18-year-old Lilja, who stays with her grandparents while attending an audition in town. Despite mysterious family secrets and her father being against the idea, Lilja feels at home. The film takes place within the walls of one house in Reykjavík over the course of five days. “When people ask me what the film is about, I say it’s about a dysfunctional family,” Helena admits. As soon as the family members enter the house, they seem to be stuck. Gradually the viewer finds out why it was dangerous for the young teenager to stay with her grandparents. 

While Natatorium doesn’t explicitly evoke dance, after talking to the director, it becomes obvious that nothing in the frame is there without a reason. “When I’m creating the frames, it’s the movement of the actors in harmony with the camera and space that’s important. I’m almost like a choreographer for the camera and for actors to move,” she says. “There’s no coincidence in whether a person comes from there and sits down there.”

“What firstly inspired me to start making films was Maya Deren,” explains Helena, asking with curiosity if I’m familiar with the work of the Ukrainian-born avant-garde filmmaker from New York who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. “She reminds me of myself. She was a dancer and used dance a lot in her films. Her movements in the frame are fantastic and also the way she edits. It doesn’t make sense!” 

Helena highlights the works of writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks and Dogtooth, an early work of Yorgos Lanthimos, as important sources of inspiration. She adds: “The least of my inspiration is in my daily life.”

A house of secrets

The director confesses that writing a script for a feature film was completely different from writing a script for a short film. She started with developing characters and blending a few stories together. 

“I’ve always been interested in abnormal human behaviour and things that are not accepted by normal society,” she says. “I had a script for a short film about siblings, who were the same age, but they’re half-siblings and they are kind of sexually attracted to each other. I thought maybe I can make this bigger and then started to combine different ideas that I had.” Natatorium started to take shape after Helena read a short story, “Swim,” about a boy addicted to drowning from Women in Strange Places: Stories written by her friend Celeste Ramos, who interestingly, got inspired by one of Helena’s films.

While the cast was meticulously chosen, one character that particularly stands out is Elín Helena Petersdóttir in the role of grandmother Áróra. “She’s half-Icelandic and half-Finnish. She mainly acts abroad and has hardly ever acted in Iceland,” Helena explains that Elín was typecast for the role based on a photo. “She also doesn’t speak perfect Icelandic, which is great for me — she comes out a little bit more crooked,” she adds.

It’s hard not to notice how much weaker the male characters are in the film compared to the female ones — a grandfather playing a background role, an estranged father, a brother whose life is completely controlled by his mother, a scared boyfriend. “It wasn’t deliberate,” Helen admits. “It just happened that I write strong female characters. I always do.”

Helena points out that certain things are still very gendered in society. Speaking of the grandfather, whose subtle role feels almost pitiful, she says, “He’s a victim of abuse. If you’re a woman and a victim of abuse, nobody would say, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ We all know that it’s hard. It’s harder to leave than to say, ‘just leave.’ We ask why he is there because he’s a man.” She continues that the same can be applied to the father — the viewer subconsciously questions why Lilja was raised by her father and wants to know where her mother is. “If she was raised by her mother, we wouldn’t ask where’s the father. It’s just interesting to reverse the roles like that,” she shrugs. “I think more filmmakers should do it.” 

Hungry for answers

Helena highlights that finding a producer was the biggest challenge of working on Natatorium. Her first producer bailed in the pre-production phase, after which she admits she considered quitting, too. “It’s hard to find a producer for your first feature film. Especially since my film is not mainstream. It’s not obvious that it’s gonna sell. It’s not based on a book, it’s a story that nobody knows. I can understand that not many producers want to bet on that,” she says.

“I don’t want to deliver everything. I want the audience to have questions and also make up their own answers.”

Asked to explain the plot gaps — the past brother Kalli had outside the house, for example — Helena leaves me pondering. “I have footage with more answers,” she says. But explains that after she watched the edit with the editor she decided not to give out too much information. “You can’t deliver everything. I don’t want to deliver everything. I want the audience to have questions and also make up their own answers.”

Helena says that the viewer shouldn’t rationalise Natatorium and think of a certain message. “I only want to speak to the senses, the hearts, the ears, the eyes and feelings, basically,” she laughs. “The only message is that you take from it whatever you want to take from it.”

Ahead of releasing her first feature film to the world, Helena remains calm. “I’m not stressed. I’ve done so many short films and been stressed so many times this time I’m more relaxed,” she says. “But there’s a little bit of fear,” she smiles.  

After premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, Natatorium premieres in Iceland on February 23 and will travel to the South by Southwest (SXSW) in March.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Festival Picks: IceDocs

Festival Picks: IceDocs


Girl, Put Your Lipstick On

Girl, Put Your Lipstick On


Show Me More!