Review: ‘Compartment No. 6’ artfully reimagines the road film
Based on a Finnish novel by the same name, Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” follows a lonely archaeology student and her unlikely companionship with a churlish miner she is forced to bunk with as they journey across Russia.
Mar 22, 2022
Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s latest film, “Compartment No. 6,” is a Russian-language adaptation of Rosa Liksom’s novel by the same name. An unconventional take on the road film, the story follows Finnish archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) and her compartment roommate Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) on their train journey across Russia. Both are headed to Murmansk — Laura is in pursuit of ancient petroglyphs, while Ljoha, a miner, is on his way to a job.
Laura’s Walkman, beloved camcorder and use of payphones to call her less-than-interested lover indicate that the film is a period piece set sometime in the late 1990s shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The film opens with an anxious, insecure Laura at a house party full of academics in their mid-30s in Moscow, where she is staying to learn the language. We see her enter a room where a group is playing “guess that quote,” in which she is embarrassingly outmatched by a woman, Irina (Dinara Drukarova), who we later learn is her girlfriend as well as her would-be travel companion had she not backed out last minute.
Considering the isolated nature of the title room, Laura’s vulnerability as a solo female traveler and Ljoha’s introduction as her alcoholic, somewhat crude bunkmate, it’s easy to assume the film would be yet another cautionary tale about simply existing in the world as a woman. However, Kuosmanen turns what might normally be considered thriller clichés into a nuanced, character-driven drama. The story proves to be an incredibly romantic — yet, somehow, not romanticized — journey of self-discovery and genuine companionship.
When Laura and Ljoha first meet, they immediately hate each other — or, at least, Laura hates Ljoha, who makes an inappropriate comment assuming Laura is a sex worker whose reason for travel is to service workers like him. This dispute moves Laura to teach Ljoha a very different phrase when he requests the Finnish translation for “I love you,” a miscommunication that makes a reappearance at the end of the film in a vaguely cheesy yet ultimately moving conclusion.
At the same time, Ljoha instantly becomes possessive over Laura, his apparent claim over her almost as childish as their interactions with each other. Their relationship is initially so platonic and unaffectionate that when another male traveler appears, this time Finnish like Laura, it almost feels like Kuosmanen has tricked us, and this is the romantic interest we were meant to root for all along. However, his introduction only solidifies Ljoha’s feelings, though he is too stubborn to admit them.
Initially, the film evokes Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995), which similarly begins on a train and follows two strangers’ immediate, magnetic emotional bond as they take part in parallel intellectual — and literal — journeys. Yet apart from obvious narrative and stylistic differences, it’s apparent that the goal of “Compartment No. 6” isn’t to show us the evolution of what will ultimately become a romantic relationship. While the two protagonists do share several intimate, non-sexual moments, Kuosmanen is more interested in the ease with which they interact once they get past their initial differences. The film isn’t a study of grand romantic gestures or dramatic declarations of love, but rather the simple moments that lead to revelations of the self and true emotional intimacy — how Laura and Ljoha look at each other, how they eat and drink together, and how they share a claustrophobic living space.
The juxtaposition of Laura’s fresh-faced, mousy nature and Ljoha’s intimidating one — with a shaved head, affinity for vodka, and aptitude for hot-wiring cars — is stark, making for a fascinating pair of contrasting character studies. Both roles are incredibly well-acted, and the two have such remarkable chemistry that it’s almost a shame that the film doesn’t evolve past the sweet, early stage of their relationship. “Compartment No. 6” is a film that could easily have a sequel, but part of you doesn’t want it to — in its ambiguous, optimistic ending, Kusmanen emphasizes that all relationships are important regardless of their permanence, and sometimes the very mystery of their impermanence is what makes them so special.
“Compartment No. 6” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix, and is currently playing in select theaters.
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