Strangers on a Russian Train Shed Their Illusions in ‘Compartment No. 6’

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Woman with red hair puts face to train window with eyes closed
Seidi Haarla as Laura in 'Compartment No. 6.' (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Compartment No. 6 begins at an oasis, a Moscow apartment where party guests banter about Western authors while Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” plays. It ends in the freezing cold at the edge of nowhere, far from city life. But don’t despair, for that’s when the sun appears for the first time in the movie, clinching an optimistic, if not altogether happy, ending.

The apartment, we come to learn, was a romantic, and romanticized, refuge for Laura (Seidi Haarla), the Finnish archeology student staying with the party’s hostess, her lover. Laura doesn’t expect that relationship to end when she takes a train due north to Murmansk to see the recently discovered rock drawings known as the Kanzero Petroglyphs. But out of sight, out of mind, and Laura’s lover doesn’t waste a second before moving on.

So will Laura, eventually, but only after weathering an uncomfortable, lonely, three-day train trip. Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki) presents a bleak, mid-winter Russia of undistinguished, indistinguishable vistas and nondescript train stations. The few people Laura encounters seem as brutalized as the washed-out landscape, geared to surviving rather than living.

Man with shaved head looks up from train bed
Yuriy Borisov as Ljoha in 'Compartment No. 6.' (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

She does have company, in a manner of speaking, in the other occupant of her second-class compartment. Ljoha (Yurly Borisov) is a rude, hard-drinking fellow without much education and only slightly more curiosity. He’s not stupid and possesses a vague ambition, yet his absolute indifference to the petroglyphs’ existence suggests a broad disinterest in history and art.

Adapted from Finnish writer Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel and a prizewinner at Cannes last year, Compartment No. 6 could be construed as a contemplation on what lasts and what is fleeting, what’s important and what we think is important. But that’s a bit too pat, for the petroglyphs ultimately prove less consequential than the portraits Laura and Ljoha draw of each other. Or rather “sketch,” for they (and we) never learn very much about the other’s background, family, etc.

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Compartment No. 6 is remarkably light on incident and encounters, which makes sense as road movies inevitably are about the characters’ discovery of themselves. It’s still slightly disappointing, though, that the film proves not to be a journey into Russia’s heart of darkness but rather a shedding of skins and illusions. For the hundreds of miles the train traverses, the greatest distance the characters travel is within themselves.

Woman and man talk over a meal
Seidi Haarla as Laura and Yuriy Borisov as Ljoha in 'Compartment No. 6.' (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The movie continually places Laura and Ljoha in confined spaces, essentially giving them little recourse but to reflect on and confront themselves. Shot almost entirely with handheld cameras in low-contrast colors, Compartment No. 6 presses and squeezes its protagonists in a claustrophobic vise that evokes a chronic national state of zero privacy.

The only escape from or rebuttal to this passively oppressive environment are the Russian pop songs that burst from radios. They are the mildest, least effectual form of self-expression, yet they light up the movie like a fireworks show every time Kuosmanen inserts one.

Compartment No. 6 opened Friday in the Bay Area as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues unabated. It’s tempting, but difficult and problematic, to extrapolate much about “Russian character” from the film. On the one hand we have the incorruptibility of the female conductor—a staunch public employee—who turns up her nose at a bribe. Meanwhile, no water flows from the tap in the toilet. The survival of idealism in the face of reality is quite impressive.

Woman and man in winter coats and had in snowy uninhabitated landscape
Seidi Haarla as Laura and Yuriy Borisov as Ljoha in 'Compartment No. 6.' (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The setting aside, the movie’s modest strength derives from its intimate compositions and roughhewn performances, which push two people who are entirely on their own to a rapprochement. Laura’s sexual orientation dissolves the tension of a stereotypical man-woman scenario (this isn’t North by Northwest), so their connection is forged through other expressions of vulnerability and compassion.

Compartment No. 6 plausibly asserts that people are capable of transcending their limited possibilities and stunted promise. When the credits roll, Laura and Ljoha are two seeds in Murmansk’s snow, ice and sun. Their futures may be uncertain, but they have futures.

‘Compartment No. 6’ opened March 11 at the AMC Kabuki (San Francisco), Albany Twin and Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael). It opens March 18 at Tower Theater 3 (Sacramento), AMC Saratoga 14 (San Jose), Del Mar Theater 4 (Santa Cruz) and Summerfield Cinemas (Santa Rosa).