A woman living alone in a drab apartment block may or may not be losing her mind in Knocking, the feature film debut of Swedish documentarian Frida Kempff. The details of the story are nothing new (it draws on sources as disparate as Persona, Repulsion, Mulholland Dr. and Requiem for a Dream) but Kempff’s own vision is unmistakeable. Distinguished by striking frame compositions and camera moves as well as a perfectly balanced lead performance by Cecilia Milocco, Knocking is a modest powerhouse — a threadbare narrative that’s gorgeously shot, beautifully performed and spooky as hell.
Knocking is imaginatively, if not strenuously, framed from the get-go, when an opening scene of beachgoers in repose — swimmers, sunbathers and lovers — is photographed from directly overhead, both beautifying and abstracting the image, and thus distancing us from the impending tragedy it depicts. It’s here that we see Molly (Milocco) relaxing with her partner Judith (Charlotta Åkerblom) for what will be the last time. Knocking is a bit coy about exactly what happened when Judith went for a swim that day, but it becomes apparent that she didn’t survive, and that her death stranded Molly in the psychiatric ward.
So Knocking is about Molly’s attempt to wrestle back control of her life after she’s moved into an empty apartment. She gets down to the business of fighting off depression, visiting a nursery to acquire some plants and stocking up on enough fruit to feed a small army, but the task is difficult. Sweden is gripped by a heat wave that makes it hard to sleep at night. Memories of her lost love haunt her. There’s a weird stain on the ceiling above her bed that seems to change shape. And on top of it all, there’s a distant but unmistakable knocking coming from above her ceiling — the kind of noise that might be made by a woman in trouble.
The knocking persists, growing into a mystery that consumes Molly’s days and nights. At first, she assumes the sound is an annoyance generated by someone in an upstairs apartment, but the neighbors are unhelpful — annoyed, even, by having to deal with the uninvited appearance of this middle-aged woman at their doorstep. As Molly’s entreaties for help are rejected by the building’s superintendent, the emergency responders she calls for help, and even a local police station, Knocking takes on a feminist tone, as well. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a man’s assertions would be dismissed as readily as Molly’s concerns are blown off by all and sundry.
The story here is told entirely from Molly’s point of view, and Kempff likes to push the camera in close. Milocco is up to the challenge, letting us see how hard Molly works to make herself seem happy and carefree in the moments where her face lights up, almost convincingly, before her features fall again as she seems to remember all that she’s lost from her previous life. Molly has reason to be dejected; she is a single woman of a certain age where women tend to become invisible, and she seems to fear her happiest days are past her. (Her repeated insistence that she’s “well” again after her hospital stay rings false given her unsettled demeanor and the apparent loneliness of her circumstances.) There’s something, too, in Milocco’s performance as well as in Kempff’s visual construction of her story that suggests both her understanding of how lucky she is to have experienced those blissful, romantic days she remembers, and her reluctance to acknowledge the new sorrow that engulfs her.
It’s a good thing that Molly’s character and Milocco’s performance are both so complex, as it helps distract from the over-familiarity of the rest of the material. When Molly becomes convinced the knocking is a cipher, she covers a wall of her apartment with crawled efforts to translate the message from Morse code, an overdone trope from paranoia thrillers that feels out of place in a movie that’s otherwise so naturalistic. I felt the same way about one key scene where Kempff breaks out the Snorricam — a stabilized, body-mounted camera rig whose disorienting feel has become a bit of a cliche over the decades. To be fair, Kempff moves the camera so deliberately and aggressively, putting it on quickly pivoting jibs or framing Milocco’s face upside-down, that the Snorricam may simply represent a natural progression into artifice. But then there’s the narrative, which quickly paints itself into a difficult corner. A story like this generally turns on its final reveal. Either the knocking is real or it is imagined — our protagonist is either exceptionally attentive or utterly delusional. The range of plausible yet dramatically satisfying outcomes is limited.
Kempff doesn’t quite thread that needle, as the film’s final scene ties up its loose ends rather too neatly to be believed. But one lesson that she’s learned from her countryman Ingmar Bergman is that even the most serious, emotionally grounded film needn’t be limited to the range of possibilities that would be credible in the physical world. In addition to its lessons about the limited reach of social services and the reluctance of our neighbors to care for one another, Knocking has a heavy metaphysical payload that drifts, in its most bracingly gorgeous and cathartic moments, into the supernatural. This film reaches an emotional climax so affecting and heartbreaking that distinctions between Molly’s interior life and the “real world” outside hardly seem to matter. Knocking has this in common with some of the greatest films ever made: it demonstrates that distinctions between what’s real and what’s imagined can themselves be illusory; the interior of the human mind constitutes a real world in itself.