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You’re alone. The walls around you are closing in. You dress up for no reason. You drink for many reasons. Sanity is fickle. Grief is deep. When you finally leave your apartment, the anxiety only increases. You’re trapped.
Is this a description of living through the pandemic or a description of Frida Kempff’s debut narrative feature Knocking? Why not both! Filmed in 2019 — and based on a novella from 2016 — Knocking was not intended as any sort of Coronavirus allegory. But one of the pleasures — pains? — of consuming art right now is that everything seems to be filtered through our current lens. And it makes this thriller all the more effective and difficult.
Knocking follows a woman named Molly who is leaving a psychiatric hospital to start a new life in a new apartment. Her reasons for being in the hospital are hinted at in dreamy flashbacks — kisses from her lover on the beach, the terrifying expanse of the sea. There was an accident. The grief and the guilt — and likely some pre-existing mental illness — caused a psychotic episode. But now she’s better. She’s trying to be better.
Upon moving into her new place, Molly begins to hear an incessant knocking. She sees the word “help” scrawled on her elevator. A spot of blood keeps appearing on her ceiling. She witnesses a domestic disturbance. She begins to hear a woman’s screams. She suspects the knocking is morse code. She’s convinced that someone is in trouble. She’s convinced only she can help.
This is a simple, effective thriller that largely takes place within the confines of Molly’s claustrophobic apartment. Kempff’s direction and star Cecilia Milocco’s performance place us in Molly’s head. As she unravels, we unravel, and the whole experience is deeply unsettling.
Unlike similar horror movies, Kempff seems unconcerned with the film’s mystery. The question is not whether the knocking is real or if the screams are real or if one of Molly’s neighbors is secretly torturing someone. It remains a possibility, but seems unlikely. The suspense is not born from a hidden truth, but from our concern for Molly’s well-being. This is not a fun genre film. This is a sad and visceral foray into one woman’s mind.
The horror then becomes mental illness, grief, and the inability to change the past. It’s the inability to trust ourselves and the inability to trust others. It’s the way that people who are mentally ill are ignored, rather than helped. If there’s a twist in the film, it has nothing to do with the central plot — it’s the reveal that Molly’s kind and caring doctor is a figment of her imagination. There are no kind and caring doctors in this world. There is just a woman who needs help and everyone else who doesn’t care.
Molly spends the film in despair that no one except her wants to save the woman upstairs. But she’s really asking: why does no one want to save her? Why was no one able to save her lover? Why do people ignore the humanity of those around them? Why is the world boring in its tragedy and tragic in its boredom?
Those questions feel as pertinent to our current moment as the image of a lonely drunk queer having a solo dance party. But maybe the unfortunate truth is they’d be pertinent to any moment. The last year has just underlined them again and again and again.