“Compartment No. 6”: A winding love story, without romance

Kuosmanen’s depiction of two strangers on a long train journey is a beautiful illustration of the basic human desire for connection.

Seidi Haarla as Laura and Yuriy Borisov as Ljoha in “Compartment No. 6”.

Photo credit Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.


★★★★½
Compartment no. 6
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
Screenplay by Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman, Juho Kuosmanen
With Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov
Rated R, Now Playing

What is the essence of love when the typical trappings of romantic infatuation are stripped away? Compartment no. 6, the third feature film by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, offers a possible answer: acceptance. The new version, inspired by the novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom, is the story of an unlikely friendship born of adventure.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish student living in Moscow. As the film begins, she is preparing to embark on a long journey to Murmansk, a city above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia, to see a historic set of petroglyphs. His companion Irina (Dinara Drukarova) bids him farewell and toasts his trip at a party the day before he leaves. We later learn that Irina was supposed to accompany Laura but had to cancel. During the party, Laura seems out of place, frequently slipping into a side room to escape the scrutiny of the seemingly sophisticated crowd and think about her place in both Irina’s life and her community.

The film’s main narrative begins with Laura boarding the train to Murmansk. His compartment mate, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), is a tough-looking Russian miner, due to the nature of his job and a generally harsh lifestyle. Ljoha quickly comes across as messy and inconsiderate, spilling booze and occupying part of Laura’s space with her food and belongings. During a drunken episode, Ljoha taunts Laura and makes vulgar suggestions, behaving so disruptive that one wonders if they will even survive the trip together. Unsurprisingly, Laura tries to abandon the trip early, getting off in St. Petersburg with the intention of returning to Moscow. However, she changes her mind when she realizes that the house she left behind is no longer waiting for her.

After Laura returns to the train, Ljoha shows emotion for the first time; he is both worried about her and offended that she is gone. From this moment, the tone of their relationship begins to change. The contrast between the educated Muscovite friends of Ljoha and Irina is obvious; while party guests immediately understood Laura’s desire to see the petroglyphs (and even offered reasons why the trip would be meaningful), Ljoha is puzzled as to why she is taking such a long trip to this end. During a one-night layover in Petrozavodsk, Ljoha convinces Laura to join him in visiting an elderly woman he is close to. During this outing, we get a glimpse of a softer side to Ljoha’s personality, with a protective demeanor towards both women. The pair return to the train as a cheerful, smiling unit, with no sign of the suspicious strangers who left the night before.

As the bond between Laura and Ljoha grows stronger, Laura’s ties to Moscow and her past gradually fray. She tries to phone Irina in Moscow during brief trips off the train, but it becomes harder to connect as the journey progresses. By the time she reaches Murmansk, Irina seems almost like a stranger on the other end of the line; physical distance has turned into interpersonal distance.

Ljoha’s mood temporarily deteriorates when he and Laura are unexpectedly joined by another Finnish traveler for part of the journey. Their guest’s departure coincides with the loss of Laura’s camera, which she used to document both her life in Moscow and her train journey. Ljoha is surprisingly tender and sympathetic after the camera disappears, and during this conversation he learns that Laura will not only see the petroglyphs, but also leave behind a directionless relationship.

As the train approaches Murmansk, Laura and Ljoha are fast friends. At a celebratory dinner on the last night of the trip, Ljoha is visibly touched, almost in tears at one point. However, he soon seems overwhelmed by both the strength of feelings coming from Laura and the suggestion that their friendship continue after the trip, stating “no need to do anything”, then running away when she tries. to retrieve his address. Laura follows Ljoha and wordlessly confronts him in a passionate embrace, forcing him to face feelings he would rather suppress – but after a few moments he pulls away and disappears. We share Laura’s palpable sense of cascading multiple losses – of her relationship with Irina, of her camera (representing memories of a romanticized life in Moscow), and finally of that fleeting joy.

Laura’s eventual visit to the petroglyphs is very different than imagined. However, it is clear that the vague, almost impulsive motivations that initially sent her on this unusual journey have crystallized into a sense of determination and intentionality, concerning Ljoha as much as her future.

During the first scene of the film, one of the party attendees quotes a line from Victor Pelevin’s novel Chapayev and Vide, clearly presaging Laura’s impending journey: “To escape, you must know firmly not where you are running, but from where.” However, it seems that Ljoha too “escapes” a difficult past, which manifests in her complex emotional makeup. By the end of the film, he remains unable to directly express his emotions, choosing instead to send Laura a note expressing his feelings. Looks like the writers missed an opportunity to share more about Ljoha’s backstory, which would have provided more context for his behavior during the second half of the film.

All along Compartment no. 6, much is communicated without words. Borisov in particular delivers an incredibly compelling performance as Ljoha, whose development from a rugged, opaque personality to one full of raw, rambunctious feelings is the story’s high point. The film’s visuals are particularly effective; cinematographer JP Passi manages to capture intricate character interactions despite the tiny, cramped spaces of the train, and the documentary and landscape shots from Laura’s camera help solidify our understanding of her character. Despite the simple premise of his story, Kuosmanen manages to subtly probe the depths of human emotion with this film.

About Victoria Rothstein

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