Surging with energy, Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6 opens with the insistent beat of Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug as a party replete with literary references and intellectual sparring flowing like wine, takes place in the book-lined Moscow home of literature professor Irina (Dinara Drukarova). The film’s central character, Laura (Seidi Haarla), emerges from behind the bathroom door, the traditional party hideout. Entering the fray once more with a small smile, at once timid and excited, Laura is drawn to the intoxicating intellectual whirl, dazzled by the vibrant presence of Irina and her entourage, yet she is an outsider. A student from Finland, who came to Russia to learn the language, Laura is about to embark on another journey, from Moscow to Murmansk, in the far Northwest corner of Russia on the Barents Sea, to see the ancient petroglyphs – rock drawings found on an island in Lake Kanozero, that have been dated to the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC. Traveling by train, Laura’s encounter with her compartment mate Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a chain-smoking, vodka swigging, Russian miner, takes her on an emotional journey full of loathing, humor, unexpected twists, small exploits, and even love.
The film is set in the late 1990s, in the post-Soviet era. Curious and open to experience, Laura has cultural and intellectual aspirations. She may not have read Pelevin’s Buddha’s Little Finger, but she assures her interlocutor that it’s on her list. Yet despite her longing, she does not quite belong. Although Laura and Irina are lovers, Irina does not acknowledge the relationship publicly and refers to her at the party as “my Finnish friend”. The trip to see the petroglyphs was originally planned as a joint excursion, but Irina cancelled at the last minute, due to work responsibilities. Laura is disappointed as what might have been a romantic adventure will now be a long, very likely uncomfortable, train ride alone.
Once on the train, the conductor (Julia Aug) has the severity of a prison guard, and it turns out that Laura will be sharing the trip with a man who looks like the worst possible travel companion. As in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Instead of Irina, Laura is stuck with Ljoha. Drinking steadily, Ljoha is rude and obnoxious, with fierce eyes and in perpetual motion, tossing sparks and cigarette ash in all directions, with no sense of boundaries. She tries to avoid him as much as possible, listening to a cassette or filming the view with her camcorder, but Ljoha is oblivious to her rejection and keeps badgering her with questions. Laura takes her own amusing linguistic revenge, when he asks her how to say “I love you” in Finnish.
On the surface, the distance between the two could not be greater. Ljoha is genuinely baffled by Laura’s desire to see the petroglyphs, he cannot comprehend her intellectual interest. Borisov is brilliantly outrageous as Ljoha, fiercely energetic, his eyes burn with intensity, experiencing life in its visceral physicality with an engaging candor. Yet as the train travels north, and there is no alternative but to spend time together in close quarters, Laura and Ljoha get to know one another a little bit better, revealing different aspects of their characters. Even the conductor becomes a bit more mellow as the journey progresses. The viewer sees Laura in her strength and vulnerabilities, and Haarla delivers a very natural, grounded performance, revealing Laura’s thoughts and feelings in her gaze and tone. And as the physical distance from Moscow grows, Laura gains perspective on her relationship with Irina. There are no epiphanies, but that is not a spoiler, for the beauty and compelling power of this film is in its appreciation of the small moments, the random encounters and conversations with strangers that remain etched on the heart.
Compartment No. 6 won the Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and the The Nechama Rivilin Award for Best International Film at the 2021 Jerusalem Film Festival.
Compartment No. 6
Finland/Germany/Estonia/Russia/2021/106 min/Russian, Finnish, with Hebrew subtitles
Director: Juho Kuosmanen; Screenplay: Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman, Kuosmanen, inspired by the novel “Compartment No. 6” by Rosa Likson; Cinematography: J-P Passi; Editor: Jussi Rautaniemi; Cast: Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov, Dinara Drukarova, Julie Aug, Lidia Kostina, Tomi Alatalo, Viktor Chuprov, Denis Pyanov, Polina Aug