The end of the line comes for us all, but how we face it, where it takes us, and who we face it with, can vary vastly. In Compartment No. 6, the 2021 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix co-winner from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, this “line” is a train ride from Moscow to the arctic port town of Murmansk, taken by the protagonist Laura (Seidi Haarla). Along the way, she discovers more about herself and her place in the world through the meeting of her train compartment partner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a rowdy Russian miner of roughly the same age.
An aspiring archeologist, Laura is propelled in her voyage partly by a desire to see Murmansk’s petroglyphs. However, from the opening party scene in the Moscow apartment of Irina (Dinara Drukarova), Laura’s lover, we get the sense that Laura is as much fleeing one life as she is attempting to discover another. Surrounded by middle-aged intellectuals in turtlenecks and glasses, Laura awkwardly sits in the corner of both furniture and frame, not entirely at ease in this environment with her large sweater and messy hair. We get the sense that she only needs the faintest of pushes from life to make this realization herself.
Life seemingly makes this push when Irina is unable to join Laura on the trip to Murmansk due to “work.” Both actresses expertly play the stagnation of romantic desire, from small longing glances and hand brushes, to halted breaths over emotionally distant phone calls. In one of the final shots of the two physically together, Irina’s sleeping figure lies face-down on Laura, weighing her down both literally and figuratively. Such moments do not condemn or judge Irina and Laura’s relationship, but rather indicate that it has simply run its course.
Irina’s abandonment leaves Laura to endure the days-long Arctic Circle train ride cramped in a two-person compartment with Ljoha, whose rough exterior, derogatory comments, and drunken ranting initially make for an annoying travel companion. Yuriy Borisnow injects Ljoha with an aggression that is equal parts pathetic and sympathetic: pathetic because it is ultimately self-destructive for him, such as when he punches snow in a fit of rage and ends up falling, and sympathetic because it is rooted in relatable sentiments of resentment, insecurity, and want.
While the train looks comfortable enough with its soft lights and wood panelling, the amenities and hospitality often leave something to be desired, such as when the bathroom sink does not work, or when the conductor appears unwilling to help Laura find a different compartment after she gets off to a rough start with Ljoha. The filmmakers do masterful work in capturing the mundane beauty of being on a running train, where the dank confines often mask the beauty of the diverse landscapes fleeting by. The piece feels intimate and lived in, allowing viewers to become a third passenger in Laura and Ljoha’s journey.
Both characters are in want of a human connection, and their physical proximity in the titular train compartment quickly turns into emotional proximity. The pair finds themselves opening to each other about everything, from their passions and desires, to their most profound hates, hurts, and insecurities. It is not so much that the two have similar identities or physical experiences, but rather that they are at similar places in their lives in terms of emotional and psychological development. Recognizing these similarities in each other, the pair are able to step off the train as changed human beings, ready to take the next step in their lives.
My largest critique is in a way another praise: at times, the two central characters feel too congenial when the script necessitates friction between them. For instance, in one scene where the pair walks through the restaurant car while arguing, Laura’s expression appears strangely happy, as if she is not invested in the present argument. My impression is that this speaks to the apparent chemistry between Haarla and Borisov, and small incongruities like this were not enough for me to disembark from the film’s emotional journey.
Overall, the arc of Laura and Ljoha, going from unwilling travel partners to platonic life partners whose relationship may potentially bloom one day into full-fledged romance, felt utterly believable and fleshed out. Elegantly crafted with humanity and sensitivity, Compartment No. 6 weaves through emotional and physical landscapes with remarkable ease, leaving ripples across the viewer’s soul.
Watch Compartment No. 6 on February 19 and 20 at Metro Cinema.