Thomas Caldwell reviews ‘Compartment No. 6’

A romance film that is not romantic in the conventional sense, a road trip film that is not really a road trip film, a film about cultural clashes that is really just about two specific individuals, Compartment No. 6 defies expectations in the most rewarding ways.

Predominantly set onboard a train travelling from Moscow to Murmansk, in the far north-west of Russia, this is the second film by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen and the joint award winner of the Cannes Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It follows Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish student travelling to see the ancient petroglyphs near the remote city, and her encounter with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a Russian man travelling to work at the city’s mine. Sharing a compartment together on the long train ride, the pair initially seem to be polar opposites, but over the course of their journey they form a deep bond.

Comparisons to films such as Before Sunrise and Lost in Translation have already been widely made, and those are reasonable films to situate Compartment No. 6 alongside as they all have a warm, pleasantly melancholic mood about unfulfilled love between two people whose mutual attraction cannot overcome their circumstances. Perhaps the key difference is that while the couples in those other films feel drawn to each other and choose to spend time together, Laura and Ljoha are stuck together and for a long stretch of the film there is no attraction at all. In fact, the film goes out of its way to make Ljoha completely unlikeable at first, by presenting him as a drunk, nationalistic chauvinist whom Laura has every right to be disgusted by. Many of the early scenes when she has to reluctantly spend time in his company will no doubt trigger some sort of dread in any audience member who has had the misfortune of being stuck in a situation where they have to grudgingly tolerate the company of somebody deeply unpleasant, awkwardly making small talk in the hope they will eventually lose interest.

It is therefore something of a triumph that Kuosmanen’s film convincingly portrays how Laura and Ljoha do end up being drawn to each other in a way that while not quite romantic love, is also deeper and more intimate than a friendship. Laura discovers that under the bluster and posturing, Ljoha is something of a lost soul with an almost childlike defensiveness and a deep yearning for human connection that even he is probably not aware of. To the film’s credit, Ljoha’s early obnoxious and even abusive behaviour towards Laura is not excused or redeemed – this is not a whimsical film with a simple message about looking beyond our differences to see who people really are – but it does reveal how somebody like Ljoha might be able to overcome their bravo and evolve into somebody worth spending time with.

Ljoha is something of an enigma for most of the film, with only occasional clues about his background. One of the most telling moments is when during an overnight train stop, he takes Laura to visit an elderly woman he knows, and when asked if the woman is his mother, Ljoha replies, ‘She is better than a mum’. It is a line that is spoken with no particular emotion, but it carries an enormous amount of weight. On the other hand, the film begins revealing quite a bit about Laura’s backstory, as we see her awkwardly navigating a party that her girlfriend – an older academic – is hosting. Laura struggles with pronouncing some of the Russian words and names, and is not up to speed with the other guests’ cultural references and intellectual conversations. Several partygoers give her unsolicited feedback about the worthiness of going to see the petroglyphs and it is only later in the film when Laura repeats their words almost verbatim during a conversation with other passengers does it start to become clear that her journey is not so much something she wanted to do, but something she felt obliged to do by her lover, and she has dutifully played the part expected of her.

Despite the vast length of the train journey that Laura and Ljoha share, there is no real sense of the physical distance being travelled, as for the most part the film takes place inside train carriages and station surroundings. It is an interior film about interior lives that over time the two lead characters allow each other a glimpse at. The film is set in post-Soviet Russia during the 1990s, a period of great upheaval and uncertainty in both Russia and Finland, and there are ways in which the dynamic between the pair reflect both the elements of commonality but also the immense differences between the cultures of the two nations. And yet, ultimately, Compartment No. 6 is still essentially about two lonely lost people who discover that despite being the unlikeliest of travel companions, there is perhaps something they can provide for each other. It transcends cultural differences, it transcends conventional movie romance narratives, and the feelings it stirs up cannot necessarily be easily explained, but the mood it generates is felt on a deeply satisfyingly emotional level that resonates long after the final credits have finished.

Released by Sharmill Films in cinemas from 7 July 2022.

Thomas tweets at @cinemaautopsy

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