Opening just before the turn of the 21st century in post-Soviet Moscow, we find our Finnish protagonist Laura (Seidi Haarla) about to cautiously share with a room of liberal academics that she intends to travel to Murmansk to see the recently discovered petroglyphs— a set of ancient rock drawings swooned over by archaeologists across the world. One of the beige-clad group piously approves of this decision, coming to the conclusion that “it is easier to understand the present if you understand the past. It’s important to know where we come from.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that Compartment No.6, the latest addition to Juho Kuosmanen’s eclectic oeuvre, looks like a film in which historical context is essential. After all, the film picks a nexus of change in modern geopolitics — Russia in the decade succeeding the fall of the Berlin wall — to situate itself in, and mixes in petroglyphs from the 2nd millennium BC to boot, a symbol of Russia’s longer, more enduring history. However, Kuosmanen wipes away this alternative story, and instead history is relegated to the sidelines of this film about forging human connection based on little other than present circumstances and emotional necessity.
Laura, who is studying archeology at Moscow University, is actually traveling to Murmansk to impress her professor, Irina (Dirana Drukarova), the woman she is also having an affair with. Resolved to complete this trip with hopes of winning her professor’s love, she sets off on a brutal cross-country rail journey to the largest city north of the Arctic Circle.
In a meet-cute situation you will likely have never seen on-screen before, Laura is partnered up with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a crass and tough-natured Russian coal miner. Carelessly distributing clementine peel and bits of sausage throughout their shared train cabin as Laura arrives, he later mocks Laura’s travel plans with a dose of misogynistic abuse. Ljoha and Laura, as you might have guessed, do not make fast friends, but after asking to switch compartments, the quiet but steely Laura resigns herself to the fact that she will have to share this space with Ljoha.
The inescapable four walls of the train act as a straitjacket in transit for the pair, and as time goes on, they gradually start to find ways to connect. Ljoha becomes a more playful, less judgemental companion than Laura’s friends back in Moscow, and encourages her to think less and enjoy more. In return, Ljoha begins to recognise that though Laura may be a bookish European, she can give as good as she gets. In a wryly acted moment by Haarla, when Ljoha asks why Laura is traveling to Murmansk, without a beat, she co-opts his earlier insult to her and convincingly shoots back: “to sell my cunt.”
Kuosmanen, however, doesn’t let the audience become too at ease with their budding attachment. Though the pair recognise new qualities in each other, their differences remain stark and immoveable. In one particular scene, the two sit opposite each other in the train’s restaurant car and struggle to chat with the lighthearted energy they maintain in the cabin.
When Laura orders champagne for them, Ljoha is embarrassed by the fact that he doesn’t like it and runs back out of the car, seeking solace from this reminder of his lack of sophistication. When the pair move out of the cabin’s neutral zone into a more normal social setting, the difficulties they would have maintaining their friendship in the outside world become more apparent. This is not a relationship that is destined for longevity; yet, we are asked in spite of this to recognise its value and importance.
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise — similarly set on a long rail journey in which two strangers meet and form a romantic bond — proposes. “I know it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.” The film’s protagonists and lovers, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), endeavour to work out all kinds of opinions and philosophical questions in their quest for mutual understanding. As they articulate their thoughts, feelings and positions, they argue, misunderstand, and then break through, unlocking new pieces of their love as they feel more and more seen by the other person.
By contrast, Compartment No.6 takes the edge off this need for fulsome understanding and instead presents an idea of human connection that is more physical, with feelings that cannot be made tangible by working them out through conversation. Laura doesn’t learn much more about Ljoha’s background beyond the fact he is Russian, and instead of profound conversation, the two express their (80% platonic) attraction to each other by frolicking like puppies in the snow and playfully throwing scrunched pages of newspaper at each other, relishing the joys of friendship that are left unsaid.
About halfway through the film, Laura’s camcorder, containing treasured memories of her life in Moscow with Irina, is stolen by an acoustic guitar-playing softboy that Laura and Ljoha endure as a cabinmate for a portion of the trip. Following this, in a moment of real vulnerability, Laura opens up to Ljoha about the fact that she had a girlfriend —not a boyfriend as she had previously told him — and shares her reflective ruminations on the relationship. Separated by a whisper, their faces lit by a warm enclave of the train’s yellow and red lights against the encroaching black sky entering through a square of window, it is like the pair are caught in an intimate moment of unconventional pillow talk. If this was Before Sunrise, Jesse would reach out and meet Celine in this confessional moment, but Compartment No.6 takes a more understated route. Ljoha responds not by sharing something of himself, which would be out of character at best and deeply saccharine at worst, but with the upbeat idea that they should celebrate in the restaurant car to cheer Laura up.
For Laura and Ljoha, history — both their own and the nation’s they belong to — is a hindrance to understanding the present moment they have with each other. What is important is their purity of feeling, unencumbered by the baggage that exists outside of the train. They do not work through their historical, cultural, or national differences to find common ground, nor do they feel a need to hash out existential questions to feel understood and validate their emotional connection; instead, they play, drink and smoke their way through. This is enough for Laura to deeply miss Ljoha when she finds herself at the end of her journey, and it is enough for Ljoha to want to help Laura find the petroglyphs that he has no interest in.
“That’s it!?” Ljoha exclaims as they finally reach the rock drawings, with Laura looking just as uninspired. Compartment No. 6 novelly turns away from Russia’s history, whether recent or centuries old. For example, in one scene, Ljoha tells Laura they are off “to see Yuri Gagarin.” When they arrive, Gagarin is no more than a mural on an old rusted gate, irrelevant to the contours of their story beyond being a location marker. In this experiment in hotboxing human connection, history is far less important than the indescribable sparks of the here and now.