Film Review: ‘Compartment No. 6’
by Koom Kankesan
Review: Compartment No. 6
This cold, wintry tale, directed by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, is an adaptation of a novel by Rosa Liksom. It tells the story of Laura, a young graduate student of archeology travelling on her own in Russia. On the long train journey to Murmansk, she must reckon with her boisterous, offensive compartment mate, Lyokha. It’s a tale of opposites, if ever there was one, but as the film stresses again and again, appearances can be deceiving.
Juho Kuosmanen‘s film Compartment No. 6 shared the Grand Prix (the second highest prize) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based on Rosa Liksom’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish graduate student studying archaeology in Russia. The film begins in Moscow during what feels like the eighties where Laura, at a party given in the home of her lover/landlord Irina (Dinara Drukarova), seems quite shy and out of place among the Moscow intellectuals. We learn that Irina is a literature professor and that she and Laura are supposed to take a trip up to the northwest port city of Murmansk to see the ten thousand year old petroglyphs. However, Irina has cancelled at the last minute, forcing Laura to make the trip on her own.
Why Laura commits to the freezing, isolating trip on her own is never explained. We can only surmise that Laura is too young and inexperienced, too much in thrall to Irina to think and act for herself. Much of the film concerns itself with Laura’s overnight train journey to Murmansk where she uses every opportunity during its rest stops to call Irina and check in with her. These missed phone calls and brief conversations are never fulfilling and the audience is left to wonder what Irina thinks of Laura and whether she is cheating on her. To make matters worse, Laura’s compartment mate is an uncouth, nervy, loudmouthed young Russian called Lyokha (Yuri Borisov) who is travelling to Murmansk to work in a mine. When he introduces himself, he is drunk and asks Laura if she is travelling to Murmansk to sell herself. Disgusted, Laura tries to leave and find other accommodations to no avail. The journey progresses and they form a reluctant, then resigned, bond, culminating in genuine warmth and awkward attraction.
Both Haarla and Borisov are excellent in their roles and since so much of the film depends upon their interactions, this makes for a solid film. Kusomanen’s style follows the moment to moment ups and downs of Laura’s journey and emphasizes interaction over exposition. It’s a cinema of observation rather than explication because so many questions are left unanswered: what truly brought Laura to Russia, what is Lyokha’s back story and what is he struggling with, why does Lyokha try to break through and bond with Laura given how cynical and angry he seems? I’m not sure that without these insights and explanations one can buy their eventual bond. Nevertheless, the film is interesting and shot through with an uncomfortable feeling that keeps the audience on its toes. When the train stops for the night, Lyokha convinces Laura to drive with him to a remote house in a stolen car where they stay with an older woman. She is not his mother and we never learn what he is to her – all we see is that she is warm to Laura, finally informing her in private that she has found a good man.
Part of this film’s strangeness is the dated feeling in it. The amount of sexism and aggression Laura endures from Lyokha, her timid uncertainty, and the look and feel of the work make it seem like an indie film from the eighties or nineties. I don’t know if this dated feeling is characteristic of Finnish films. The few Finnish films I’ve seen have mostly been made by Aki Kaurismaki and are dominated by an odd sort of cynicism or quirkiness, and an oppressive sense of coldness and helplessness. Compartment No. 6 has all of these elements but since the film takes place in Russia and most of the dialogue is in Russian, might it be fair to say it is more of a Russian film than a Finnish one? Another aspect of the film that seems dated to me is the sheer number of risks Laura takes. Since much of the film is shot in a fairly claustrophobic way, using a dank colour palette, and the general demeanour of the people she encounters is uncertain and hostile, I kept on expecting something bad to happen to Laura whenever she stepped off the train. She repeatedly trusts people, ventures to remote places, and enters dark and isolated spaces.
Nothing truly bad does happen though. Lyokha and Laura end up connecting again once they are in Murmansk and voyage out onto the sea to see the petroglyphs but as with the rest of the film, there are no definitive answers as to what this joyful brief time ultimately means or whether they will see each other again. Instead, the film demands that you simply accept the texture and feel of its world, one where alienation, cold, and distance are inevitable constants. The story itself is slight and left me wishing there was more. However, there is a great deal to like in the film and it signals a filmmaker to watch out for in the future.