starring Cecilia Milocco, Krister Kern, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen
written by Emma Broström
directed by Frida Kempff
by Walter Chaw Frida Kempff's Knocking reminds me a great deal of Matthew Chapman's underseen Heart of Midnight, in that both are about troubled young women recovering from some recent trauma, given autonomy over themselves and their environment and then mistrusted when things, perhaps insidiously, start to go pear-shaped. Where they diverge, however, is that Chapman's film is deliciously sleazy--the peril therein largely housed in the tension between sexual repression and expression and the lengths to which a male-dominated society is interested in manipulating women. It's no accident an inciting moment in Heart of Midnight involves an apple dropped from a peephole bored through the heroine's ceiling. In Knocking, the tension is whether Molly (Cecilia Milocco) is hearing ghostly knocking coming from her ceiling--maybe in Morse code, maybe not--or imagining it. That's it. Unless the knocking is attached to some tangible anchor, it can exist only as a metaphor for Molly's flashed-back-to but oblique trauma, for her sexual identity as gay (though no one seems interested in her one way or another), or for a more general sense of societal systems designed around not believing women. All are important in a social sense and tedious in a metaphorical sense. If the message is women get shafted, well, this is true and terrible. But if that's all you have to say about it, there's nothing left to consider in the subtext.
Knocking doesn't have anything to say about it. What it does have is a superlative lead performance from Milocco that goes a long way towards justifying the film's existence. Kempff, to her credit, seems to get that and lingers on Milocco's face for long, unbroken shots. Lengthy passages consist of Molly listening but also hearing and, in the hearing, we can tell there's something active and interesting going on in there. She's becoming, and learning. It's tempting to present Knocking as a film about the process of recovery, its ups and downs as a person who has lost their security begins to rebuild the world around the hole that security left behind. In the most active sequence in the film, Kempff shoots it all as if from a selfie stick: a foot from Milocco's face as she barrels through doors, gets into shouting matches, wields a bayonet, or plays the hero of her own life in a world emptied of heroes. The film belongs to Milocci, and whatever movie's playing inside her head is more interesting than what's playing outside of it.
Still, I was with Knocking for most of its slender runtime. Milocci has a kind of Tina Majorino quality to her face (intelligent, precious), and Kempff makes a lot of it. I could spend even more time watching her try to understand what the things she's hearing mean. I think had Knocking just been that, i.e., Molly meticulously, painfully fortifying her defenses against the howling nihilism of existence instead of some kind of thriller that gets an extended payoff at the end of it, the picture would've been some kind of masterpiece. When Knocking inserts scenes from Bergman's Persona in its opening minutes, I had hoped the film would take a cue from it by being a thriller in the sense that there's nothing more interesting than watching someone in a celluloid mirror reflect the pieces you're shattered into and a way, however imperfect, to kintsugi yourself back together. When it's merely this device in a thriller plot, it demeans Molly's persistence, making of her a damaged Nancy Drew and her tragedies a hackneyed origin story.