As seen far too often in the current media landscape, films have had to sit idly by as audiences remained sheltered due to the pandemic. As we move about the world, we have to find our footing again with other people in social and work activities. A sense of being reborn, not unlike the city I’ve adopted as home, doesn’t stray too far from Compartment No 6, a film submitted by Finland for Oscar contention, sharing the Gran Prix with Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Laura (Seidi Haarla) is an archaeological student from Finland based in Moscow. Juho Kuosmanen’s film opens in a flat full of people, a party in full motion. Laura feels as isolated as Murmansk, her destination the morning after the party. She is hopelessly in love with Irina (Dinara Drukarova). We get the sense from the early story frames that Irina doesn’t entirely share Laura’s love; a gulf exists between the two that Laura can’t reconcile, perhaps she too stuck in her destination – a series of petroglyphs.
Based on the novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom, Kuosmanen, Andris Feldmanis, and Livia Ulman convey the tightness of living a life in isolation, of having an idea in one’s mind both about love and obsession. Enter Lyokha (Yuri Borisov), a Russian miner who happens to share Compartment No 6 on the northbound train bound for Murmansk.
Even though Lyokha’s gruff exterior, we can see the man has a heart, constantly forgetting the phrase petroglyph, but meaning well in the aim of getting Laura to her destination. Kuosmanen introduces several transient passengers into the compartment at various stages, further compressing the tight quarters of the compartment even further. Neither of the characters necessarily mind their situation; however, we feel the pressure on Laura.
Lyokha is not a dullard and could be considered a “man’s man,” drinking to excess, smoking like a chimney, and, initially, trying to woo Laura. During the travel, there’s a moment where a stationary, overnight stay is required. Lyokha woos Laura to a friends’ home, promising her many amenities. There is nothing overtly sexual about the suggestion, ultimately proving Lyokha’s resourcefulness. It is during this stopover that Laura seems to start thawing out.
The trust between the two is not entirely evident, and Laura returns to her ways, her heart set in two places. She wants nothing to do with Lyokha. Being cooped up in a sleeping compartment on a train for several days has its ways; human nature takes over. Kuosmanen had a limited amount of space to work in, and in some ways, we can feel claustrophobic; the outstanding performances from Haarla and Borisov are a tribute to Kuosmanen’s tight direction.
Once we arrive in Murmansk, the vastness of the ice floes creates a nice contrast to being on the train. Jani-Petteri Passi’s cinematography transitions from the shadows of night and the darkness of oak walls lining the train compartments to the whiteness and vastness of the icy landscape of Murmansk, similar to the two characters and their respective journeys.
They say, “opposites attract,” and Compartment No 6 gives credence to this theory; a natural tension exists between Laura and Lyokha; Laura with her attachment to the past, a reticence to trust anyone, and Lyokha with his predisposition to risk everything for the immediate present. Akin to the long train ride between Moscow and Murmansk, the two take their time in finding themselves as a couple, sharing laughter, sadness, hopes, dreams, and more along the way.
Compartment No 6 is about not giving up on our desires; instead, it is about trusting each other, which doesn’t come easily given today’s geopolitical situation. At the end of the line, though, buried deep within the frozen wastelands of the Arctic Circle, Laura and Lyokha find common ground in a gratifying way.
Compartment No. 6
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
Screenplay by Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman, Juho Kuosmanen, based on Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom
Starring Seidi Haarla, Yuri Borisov, Dinara Drukarova, Julia Aug
R, 117 mins., Sony Pictures Classics