Arts movie review

“Compartment No. 6”: A winding love story, sans romance

Kuosmanen’s portrayal of two strangers on a long train journey is a beautiful illustration of the fundamental human desire for connection

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Seidi Haarla as Laura and Yuriy Borisov as Ljoha in ‘Compartment No. 6.’
Photo credit Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Compartment No. 6
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
Screenplay by Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman, Juho Kuosmanen
Starring Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov
Rated R, Now Playing

What is the essence of love when the typical trappings of romantic infatuation are stripped away? Compartment No. 6, the third feature film by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, offers one possible answer: acceptance. The new release, inspired by the novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom, is the story of an unlikely friendship borne of adventure.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish student living in Moscow. As the film begins she is preparing to set off on a long journey to Murmansk, a town above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia, to view a historic set of petroglyphs. Her partner Irina (Dinara Drukarova) bids her farewell and toasts to her journey at a party held the night before her departure. We later learn that Irina was meant to accompany Laura but had to cancel. During the party Laura seems out of place, frequently slipping into a side room to escape the scrutiny of the seemingly sophisticated crowd and ponder her place in both Irina’s life and her community.

The film’s main narrative begins with Laura on board the train to Murmansk. Her compartment-mate, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), is a Russian miner with a hardened appearance, due to the nature of his work and a generally rough lifestyle. Ljoha quickly establishes himself as messy and inconsiderate, spilling liquor and taking up part of Laura’s space with his food and belongings. During an episode of drunkenness, Ljoha taunts Laura and makes vulgar suggestions, behaving so disruptively that one wonders whether they will even survive the journey together. Unsurprisingly, Laura attempts to abandon the trip early, getting off at St. Petersburg with the intention of returning to Moscow. However, she changes her mind when she realizes that the home she left behind is no longer waiting for her.

After Laura returns to the train, Ljoha shows emotion for the first time; he is simultaneously concerned for her and offended that she left. From this point onwards, the tone of their relationship begins to shift. The contrast between Ljoha and Irina’s educated Muscovite friends is evident; while the party guests immediately understood Laura’s desire to view the petroglyphs (and even offered reasons why the journey would be meaningful), Ljoha is perplexed as to why she is making such a long trip for that purpose. On an overnight stop in Petrozavodsk, Ljoha convinces Laura to join him on a visit to an elderly woman whom he is close to. During this outing we glimpse a softer side of Ljoha’s personality, with him behaving in a protective manner towards both women. The duo returns to the train as a smiling and playful unit, with no sign of the wary strangers who left the previous evening.

As the bond between Laura and Ljoha becomes stronger, Laura’s connections to Moscow and her past gradually fray. She tries to phone Irina in Moscow during brief exits from the train, but it becomes harder to connect as the journey progresses. By the time she reaches Murmansk, Irina seems almost like a stranger on the other end of the phone; physical distance has morphed into interpersonal distance.

Ljoha’s mood temporarily sours when he and Laura are unexpectedly joined by another Finnish traveler for a segment of the trip. Their guest’s departure coincides with the loss of Laura’s camera, which she had been using to document both her life in Moscow and her train journey. Ljoha is unexpectedly tender and sympathetic after the camera's disappearance, and during this conversation he learns that Laura is not only going to see the petroglyphs, but also leaving behind a directionless relationship.

By the time the train nears Murmansk, Laura and Ljoha are fast friends. During a celebratory dinner on the last night of the journey, Ljoha is visibly touched, almost tearing up at one point. However, he soon appears overwhelmed by both the strength of feeling coming from Laura and the suggestion of their friendship continuing after the journey, stating “no need to do any of this” and then storming away when she attempts to collect his address. Laura follows Ljoha and wordlessly confronts him in a passionate embrace, forcing him to face feelings that he would rather suppress — but after a few moments, he pulls away and disappears. We share in Laura’s palpable sense of multiple cascading losses — of her relationship with Irina, her camera (representing memories of a romanticized life in Moscow), and finally of this ephemeral joy.

Laura’s eventual visit to the petroglyphs is very different than imagined. However, it’s clear that the vague, almost impulsive motivations that initially sent her on this unusual journey have crystallized into a sense of determination and intentionality, about Ljoha as much as her future.

During the film’s first scene, one of the party attendees quotes a line from Victor Pelevin’s novel Chapayev and Void, clearly foreboding Laura’s impending journey: “to escape you need to know firmly know not where you’re running, but from where.” However, it seems that Ljoha too is “escaping” a difficult past, which manifests itself in his complex emotional makeup. At the end of the film he remains unable to express his emotions directly, instead opting to send Laura a note conveying his feelings. It feels like the writers missed an opportunity to share more about Ljoha’s backstory, which would have provided more context for his behavior during the second half of the film.

Throughout Compartment No. 6, much is communicated without words. Borisov in particular puts on an incredibly convincing performance as Ljoha, whose development from a rugged and opaque personality to one full of raw and turbulent feelings is the highlight of the story. The film’s visuals are particularly effective; cinematographer J-P Passi manages to capture complex interactions between characters despite the tiny, cramped spaces on the train, and the documentary and landscape shots taken from Laura’s camera help to reinforce our understanding of her character. Despite the simple premise of its narrative, Kuosmanen manages to finely probe the depths of human emotion with this film.