Cannes 2021 review: Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kuosmanen)

Long-distance train travel has always given opportunity to make connections. You can only stare out of the window for so long until the landscape becomes the landscape and the need for human contact takes over. Juho Kuosmanen’s second feature-length film Compartment No. 6, a follow-up to his widely lauded boxing drama The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Maki, shows just how deeply felt this need can be, and how human connections can blossom even in a small train compartment traversing a frozen wasteland between two people that do not like each other.

As the film opens we meet Finnish exchange student Laura (Seidi Haarla) at her own farewell party in the Moscow apartment of her lover Irina, a Russian literature professor. It’s the eve before a trip to the far-flung arctic city of Murmansk, where Laura wants to see the city’s claim to fame: its petroglyphs. Irina was supposed to tag along, but work got in the way (which later turns out to simply be an excuse to get rid of Laura and create distance), so Laura will be on her own. Desireless’ 1987 classic Voyage Voyage, so aptly titled, bangs through the speakers, deftly placing the film in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Laura is sad to leave Irina, but excited for her trip.

That excitement vanishes as soon as she boards the train and meets the passenger who shares her sleeping compartment. Ljoha (Yuri Borisov) is a swearing, vodka-swilling, pickle-eating, nationalistic lower-class Russian stereotype, at least in the eyes of Laura. It doesn’t take long before he is drunk and gets sexually aggressive with his fellow traveler. Laura tries to procure a different berth, but the carriage’s conductor (Julia Aug), with a seen-it-all air, flat out ignores her, leaving Laura to return to the compartment from hell to fend for herself.

Condemned to share the cramped space for hours on end, inevitably human nature rears its hopeful head and the outer defense walls of the two protagonists start to crack. A reluctant overnight stay at the home of Ljoha’s foster mom (Lidia Kostina) during a lay-over stop opens Laura’s eyes to Ljoha’s more sensitive side. Slowly a bond starts to develop between the two polar opposites, one refreshingly free of overtly romantic overtones. In fact, the moment the film threatens to go into too-familiar territory for this kind of road trip with two seemingly mismatched characters, said characters realize that this isn’t that kind of relationship.

And Compartment No. 6 is not that kind of film. Kuosmanen is more interested in the human connection between two strangers who seem to have nothing in common than in furthering that connection into a cliché romance. There certainly is something on Laura’s mind in that regard, as the melancholic final scene suggests, but it is also clear that this will never be. For that Laura and Ljoha are simply too different. Yet for the length of a train ride both are willing to overcome their prejudices and reach out to another soul, because that is what lonely people do. A hopeful idea springing from what initially seems like a hopeless situation for Laura, and it is Haarla’s character that probably learns the most from the encounter, about how she should see herself and about how she should see others.

Haarla registers these changes in her character’s arc not through dialogue, of which she does not have all that much to begin with, but through minute tweaks of her expressions and posture. It is a magnificent performance that moves from repulsion to affection, all the while staying the same person throughout the story. The actress is matched vodka shot for vodka shot by Borisov, whose rough façade makes way for an almost furtive vulnerability of somebody grappling with what vulnerability actually means for a man. Ljoha is not used to garnering interest from a woman in the way Laura shows it. He doesn’t know what to do with it, and this tense yet endearing discomfort is played brilliantly by the actor.

The chemistry between these actors, apparent from the beginning to the viewer even if not to their characters, is enhanced by the small quarters they are mostly confined to. This makes cinematographer J-P Passi’s rich handheld work all the more impressive, not in the least because he also makes you feel the cold of a blizzard once we are finally out of the train in Compartment No. 6‘s final act. The art direction’s deep and vibrant colors come alive in Passi’s lens, which deepens the intensity of Haarla and Borisov’s interactions. The train carriage feels oppressive yet also safe at the same time. The attention to detail in recreating this environment pays off, as the film has a very lived-in feeling as soon as the train leaves Moscow station, turning the viewer into a passenger that is along for the ride.

What mostly strikes one about Compartment No. 6 though is Kuosmanen’s clear understanding of how the human psyche works under the circumstances that he puts his characters through. Laura and Ljoha are easy to identify with, not only because they are not played by people too glamourous and good-looking, but because they act less like characters in a movie and more like human beings. Kuosmanen and Andris Feldmanis’ screenplay, adapted from a novel by Rosa Liksom, eschews traditional narrative to paint a picture of two guarded souls who discover that to reach across the aisle can lead to life’s most rewarding moment: truly connecting to another human being.