When the heroine in “compartment No. 6” gets into a car with a man who has brought her nothing but grief, you can quietly shout: What does she think? You can also condemn her for what seems like a bad decision or curse the filmmaker for getting another woman in trouble. Vulnerable women and dangerous men are clichés, but they are also turned upside down in this clever, emotionally nuanced film that rarely goes where you expect.
The film is set in Russia in what appears to be the late 1990s – the Soviet Union has collapsed and our girl uses a Walkman – and is mainly set on a train from Moscow to the northwestern city of Murmansk. It is there that Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish university student, plans to see the Kanozero petroglyphs, petroglyphs that are five, six thousand years old. Her reasons for going are not particularly clear. She is in Russia to study the language and shows an interest in archaeology. Still, her focus is on Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a flirt who opened her flat and bed for Laura but stayed behind in Moscow.
Travel stories are almost always metaphorical multi-destination expeditions, not all literally. So is “Compartment No. 6,” which is partly the story of a young, fuzzy woman’s journey of self-discovery. Laura is already on the move when you first see her, floating through a party in Irina’s apartment to the sounds of “Love Is the Drug” by Roxy Music. In a way, it’s perfect walk-on music: Laura is in love with Irina. But there’s also something odd, even a little sardonic, about Laura’s juxtaposition, a mouse-quiet bit hazy, and this particular song, with its seedy, emphatically unromantic world-weariness.
Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen is an agile, fast sketch artist, a talent first seen beautifully in his feature film debut “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki” (2017), about a sweet boxer in love. Minutes into ‘compartment no. 6’ you have a rich sense of people and place, and a definite bead on Laura. You see her pleasure and her discontent – you see the flickering smile and notice the nervously bowed head – as she wanders through Irina’s flat, a bohemian sprawl full of books, artifacts and smart people who are smart for each other. Laura tries to fit in, but isn’t nearly smooth enough.
Her sensitive solo act soon turns into a lively, funny, seemingly incongruous duet after she settles into the cramped, dingy train compartment. Her home for much of the rest of the story, it’s already been plotted by her fellow traveler, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). It’s hostility at first sight, or almost. At first they don’t talk to each other – he pulls out a bottle of booze without offering it to her – but by the time Laura sets up her bed for the night, Ljoha is plastered. “Russia is an amazing country,” he almost yells at her, mentioning the defeat of the Nazis before gesturing to the moon, “We went there!”
Part of what makes “Compartment No. 6” engaging and effective is how Kuosmanen plays with sound. In Irina’s apartment, Laura’s naturalistic performances, loose camera work, loose staging and visible uneasiness create a sense of intimacy and sympathy: we’ve all been the awkward guest somewhere. Once the story shifts to the train (the film was shot on moving train cars, not soundstages), its claustrophobic spaces and jerky movements help create a menacing intimacy, one that is exacerbated by Ljoha’s aggression and Laura’s vigilance. The two characters are equally defensive and mutually hostile; but pinpricks of dry humor also make their combativeness more than a little absurd.
The days go by and the train stops and departs, other characters come in and out, and Laura and Ljoha go in and out of the compartment. As they eat, chat and smoke, which they do a lot, their shared enmity begins to fade and gives way to different kinds of looks, more engaged conversations and moments of surprising delicacy and feeling. You could say they are entering a period of relaxation, but while the story evokes a specific historical period – and with it the transition from the Soviet Union to the new Russia – Kuosmanen steers clear of obvious politics. What interests him are Laura and Ljoha, how they look at each other and not, and how they reveal themselves by eating and talking and sharing a car ride.
Finally, the train arrives at its destination and so do Laura and Ljoha, who by then have reached their terminus. In emotional terms, the film culminates in two-thirds after Laura loses her camera and all her footage of Moscow. She and Ljoha stand in the back of the train, staring at the misty night and the softly diffused lights of the depot they’ve just left. As the camera holds this scene of wistful, ephemeral beauty, Laura Ljoha talks about Irina’s life, friends and flat. “I loved it all,” Laura says as the darkness swallows the lights. Her voice is filled with longing, but she has already moved on.
Compartment No. 6
Rated R for vulgar language, drink and cigarette smoking. In Russian and Finnish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour and 47 minutes. In theatres.