There’s something startlingly intimate about Compartment No. 6. It lies not so much in the subject matter or the stylistic approach or even the themes of the movie. Rather, it’s in everything in between — in the way it captures a mood, an inexpressible sense of lostness and wandering that sets the viewer’s mind ablaze. There’s nothing particularly surprising about the story, but Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen finds a way to make an old tale feel new. It opens theatrically in the U.S. this week, but it premiered at Cannes last year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and is currently on the short list for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. So I guess that makes it one of this year’s best films and one of last year’s.
Compartment No. 6 follows two mismatched souls forced together during a long train ride from Moscow to Murmansk. When we first meet Finnish student Laura (Seidi Haarla), she’s wandering awkwardly through a house party filled with Russian intellectuals trying to one-up each other. Her girlfriend Irina (Dinara Drukarova) is the one throwing the party, but this gives Laura no cachet or protection; she and her heavily accented Russian still come in for their share of mockery, and it’s clear she feels completely out of place amid Irina’s wine-drinking, quote-spouting, know-it-all guests.
With her budding interest in archeology, Laura is set to depart the next day on a trip to the Arctic port city of Murmansk to see the Kanozero petroglyphs, ancient rock drawings dating back around 5,000 years. She and Irina were supposed to go together, but Irina claims to be busy with work, so Laura must travel alone. Once aboard the train, she finds she has to share her compartment with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a boorish young man who, not long after her arrival, gets drunk off his ass and asks her, in the crudest terms, if she’s there to turn tricks. Quite a step down from the elegant Irina and her high-ceilinged flat filled with books and paintings.
The film is based on a popular 2011 Finnish novel by Rosa Liksom, but Kuosmanen has taken some liberties with it. Originally, there was a notable age difference between the two protagonists, and the train was headed to Mongolia. Their encounter also took place in the waning days of the Soviet Union. The film’s time period isn’t specified, but it appears to be the late 1990s — a character mentions Titanic at one point, and the Kanozero petroglyphs weren’t discovered until 1997 — which would suggest it’s the waning days of the Yeltsin regime, another turbulent and wild era in Russia.
Kuosmanen shoots with an immediacy that seems to run counter to the story’s literary origins. He keeps his camera close to his performers, often following them handheld through the cramped train, highlighting their loneliness and awkwardness while capturing the strange air of unpredictability that gathers whenever you’re thrust into close quarters for extended periods with someone you neither know nor particularly like. Outside the train rolls a gray, cold, industrial landscape, which we only see in dark, forbidding glimpses. Inside, filmed with warm colors, we sense shelter, but it’s a sickly, uninviting kind in keeping with the restless camerawork. You can still feel the chill in your bones.
There were probably practical reasons for such aesthetic choices — second-class compartments on Russian railcars aren’t exactly hospitable to motion-picture camera crews — but they work rather well from an artistic standpoint as well. Weirdly enough, I spent a surprising amount of time in Russian trains in the mid-1990s, and I was startled by how well the film captured both the physical and atmospheric qualities of the experience. But you don’t need to be familiar with this specific situation to appreciate what Kuosmanen has done. You lose yourself in the mood of the picture as this otherwise highly specific journey starts to feel like a cosmic one. Anyone who has ever felt adrift in a world where they longed for a friendly face or a kindly gesture — anyone human, in other words — should be able to relate to it.
Of course, Laura and Ljoha get to know each other better over the course of the trip. Despite the disastrous first impression, he turns out to be surprisingly loyal and generous, and the understandably standoffish Laura starts to warm to this curious young man. (If you squint really hard, you could imagine this movie as a harder, grittier Before Sunrise set amid post-Soviet decay.) Both of these people are unmoored: Laura herself doesn’t actually know all that much about the petroglyphs or even how one goes about seeing them; for her, the point of the trip was to be with the beautiful, worldly Irina more than anything else — a pleasant cocoon against the outside world that was never going to last.
If Haarla’s Laura is hesitant and submerged, Borisov’s Ljoha is wiry and restive. From one angle, he seems like pure predator. Look closer, however, and you might see pure prey. His eyes glint intensely as if they might peer into your soul or eat you alive, but they also dart wildly as if he might be set upon by unseen dangers at any moment. He works in a big mine, but he says he wants to save money to start a business. When she asks him what kind of business, he seems perplexed at the question: “Fuck. Just business.” (One is reminded of the mechanics of the word: busyness.) Laura and Ljoha are a study in contrasts, but like most studies in contrast, they also complete each other — though not in a romantic, Jerry Maguire kind of way. She doesn’t seem capable of navigating this reality; he seems capable of navigating only this reality. Together, perhaps just for a brief moment, they find purpose and grace at the far edge of the world.
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