Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen returns for his third feature with wit and warmth. Compartment No. 6 is a love story deeper and more affecting than any conventional meet-cute. Setting his film largely on the dingy confines of an overnight train, Kuosmanen kindles a tender love story between two lost souls.
After her girlfriend drops out due to work commitments, Finnish archaeologist Laura (Seidi Haarla) embarks on a trip to see the Murmansk Petroglyphs, leaving from Moscow on a three-day train journey. Sharing Laura’s sleeper car that Natalia (Yuliya Aug) should have occupied is Ljoha, a Russian man who immediately sets to getting drunk and harassing the benighted Laura. But despite his boorish antics over the next seventy two hours the pair will develop an unlikely and tender bond.
Compartment No. 6 has been described as the Finnish answer to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Superficially, the comparison is understandable: strangers meeting on a train develop an intense, life-changing connection over the course of their journey. Like Before Sunrise’s Jesse and Céline, Laura and Ljoha even stop off for a night of bonding before continuing on their respective journeys. But Compartment No. 6 is a different beast to Linklater’s trilogy-opener in some fundamental ways.
Firstly, where Jesse and Céline felt destined to fall in love as two youngsters full of the joys of spring, Laura and Ljoha are older, more jaded and outwardly could not be more different. Both, too, are in visible pain: Ljoha’s aggressive drinking is a classic sign of macho overcompensation, while Laura boards the train with all the baggage of an unfulfilling relationship with a largely absent partner. Meanwhile, Ljoha is like a raw nerve, numbing himself with alcohol while recoiling at the slightest kindness that manages to break through. Although he resists compassion, he cannot help but be compassionate to Laura, as with an early act of camaraderie in seeing off a lout bothering Laura at a payphone.
After a night at Ljoha’s friend’s place that turns the tide in her animosity towards him, Laura jeopardises their fragile friendship by inviting a guitar-slinging fellow Finn, Sasha (Tomi Alatalo), into their compartment. Her implicit rejection of Ljoha’s company cuts him like a razor blade, though his immediate vindication when the new guy turns out to be a grade-A prat as well as a thief is extremely satisfying.
The train itself is a dark, purgatorial space, grey within and without and staffed exclusively by sour-faced functionaries seemingly intent on the making the journey as unpleasant as possible. It’s a perfect metaphor for the depressive moods of our protagonists. Later, Ljoha’s supreme act of kindness to Laura represents their escape from that purgatory, and in its climactic moments the film finally visually opens up – like taking a deep, cold breath – among the blasted, sublime Russian winter landscape. The film’s final send off is predictable – more Dawn and Tim than Céline and Jesse – but no less moving for it.