The appeal of travel isn’t limited to geography. There’s that strange social alchemy whereby even very mismatched travelers, when thrown together by circumstance, can develop a bond. That alchemy drives “Compartment No. 6,” which won second prize at Cannes last year.
An additional form of alchemy takes place in Juho Kuosmanen’s low-key, increasingly involving film. What seems to be a fairly reductive study in diverging social status and clashing personalities will deepen into something richer and deeper.
Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish grad student in archeology, studying at Moscow University. At the urging of her girlfriend, Irina (Dinara Drukarova), she decides to go to Murmansk, 1,200 miles away, to study a famous set of petroglyphs there. Irina bows out at the last minute, leaving Laura confused and hurt.
We see everything from Laura’s point of view. Literally a foreigner, she’s also a resident, not a tourist. This means that what she sees is new to her without being shocking. Her perspective provides a useful buffer for the audience, since so much of what she encounters once she boards the train may seem fairly alarming to us.
The movie opens with a highly convivial party at Irina and Laura’s apartment. Their Moscow isn’t all that different from Brooklyn, say, or Berkeley: the music, the books, the cultural assumptions and attitudes. It’s worlds away from what we see on the train, at the occasional stopping place, and in Murmansk.
“No spitting on the floor,” the conductor announces when Laura gets to her compartment. It’s the matter-of-factness with which the conductor says it that’s so startling. The social environment Laura is witness to is coarse, grinding, oppressive. People drink and smoke incessantly. It’s unclear how much their doing so is a function of habit and how much of despair. There’s a startling backwardness, right down to the sight of rotary telephones. Rust never sleeps. Here it suffers from insomnia. What’s Russian for “metal fatigue”? It’s not just the technology that that applies to but most everything.
It extends to Laura’s fellow passengers, most especially Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). She shares her compartment with him. A mining roustabout, he looks like a skinhead and behaves like a lout. The train’s sold out, so she’s stuck with him. The few glimpses we get of third class make sharing a small space with Ljoha seem idyllic by comparison. “You think I’m a bad guy?” he asks her at one point. “Well,” she replies, “I only know what I’ve seen.” Clearly, the Finnish diplomatic corps lost a good one when Laura chose archeology.
“There must be a factory around here where they make guys like him,” a Finnish passenger who boards the train after Saint Petersburg sniffs. Soon enough, we learn that Ljoha is more complicated than he initially seemed. He’s generous and smarter than he looks, though that may not be saying a lot. A bit bug-eyed, he’s a quietly desperate, daunted man desperate to seem undaunted. That’s a male combination by no means exclusively Russian.
The movie has an unhurried rhythm, not slow, but unpressured. It’s a visual equivalent of the clacking of the railroad tracks. Kuosmanen’s partial to handheld camera. It’s a canny response to how much of the movie takes place in close quarters. When the setting does open up, during stops or in Murmansk, it feels quite liberating. There’s an extended nighttime shot from the observation car as the train leaves a station that’s surpassingly beautiful — and makes us feel the usual confinement all the more. Kuosmanen also varies things by including footage from the video camera Laura has taken with her on the trip. Its presence serves a further purpose, as will emerge later in the journey.
Watching a movie set in Russia and with mostly Russian dialogue is a strange experience at this particular moment. But with that strangeness comes a kind of illumination. This rickety, overwhelmed society is threatening global security? Yes, it is. This is a source of both bewilderment, for obvious reasons, and reassurance, for differently obvious ones.
COMPARTMENT NO. 6
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen. Written by Kuosmanen, Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman; based on the novel by Rosa Liksom. Starring Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov. At Kendall Square. 107 minutes. R (language, sexual references). In Russian and Finnish, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.