Cinematic Releases: Compartment No. 6 (2021) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Finnish cinema has been on the rise this past year, between the allegorical body horror film Hatching and director Juho Kuosmanen’s audience favorite Compartment No. 6 which just got released on blu-ray disc and digital in the US recently.  Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival which it shares with Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, this character driven episodic chamber piece based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom represents a Finnish/German/Russian co-production which curiously winds up being closer to Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces than you’d initially think: an intelligent and thoughtful road movie with heart that upends expectations when its not delighting you with gentle playfulness. 
Opening in Moscow, a Finnish student named Laura (Seidi Haarla) is living with her landlord/girlfriend Irina (Dinara Drukarova) whom she refers to among group gatherings as her ‘Finnish friend’.  The two plan a trip to sightsee the petroglyphs in Murmansk but at the last minute Irina bails, leaving Laura to fend for herself on the trip to the arctic with diminishing returns of Laura’s phone calls seeming to cement the severance of their relationship. 

Boarding a train to Murmansk by herself, she’s stationed in Compartment No. 6 which posits her with Ljoha (Yuri Borisov), a gruff, drunken, foul mouthed Russian miner who upon initial meeting seems to be the passenger from Hell.  On board in search of work, an unlikely circumstantial bond that’s neither really romantic or outright friendly, develops between the two over the course of the trip replete with numerous unexpected detours along the way.
Shot in tight but handsomely rendered handheld widescreen by Jani-Petteri Passi, the camera moves freely about the constrained quarters of the train hallways and compartments with natural ease.  At other times it pulls back to reveal expansive vistas glimpsed either in passing or on detours like when the two board a ship to illegally try and see the petroglyphs against tourist attraction regulations.  The sound design frequently reminds you you’re inside a train with these characters as it wheels into motion with sharp thuds or rattles as it moves, giving the experience of seeing these characters within the train compartments a sense of vastness.
Using real locations, largely shot in Russia with some snippets of footage smuggled out to get around COVID regulations, the settings of Compartment No. 6 while moving freely between luxury and squalor give the world of the film and its two leads a unique and distinctive flavor.  Of course, none of this would work without the crucial casting of Seidi Haarla and Yuri Borisov, both in their way outcasts despite colliding from two very different walks of life.  

While her life has been lived in learning and enjoying the high life of Moscow, his is one of hard labor, boozing, sometimes hustling and impoverishment.  What’s most interesting about Haarla and Borisov despite how different both characters look and seem is how it sidesteps the usual romantic dramedy tropes, instead searching for how these mismatched people do or don’t connect.
Despite being largely set in the cold winter with a few scenes where you can clearly see the actors breath emanating onscreen, Compartment No. 6 is cozy and inviting like you’re going on the journey with these two wherever it takes everyone watching.  Though it lacks an original score, the soundtrack is pulsating with Russian and French pop tunes including most notably the striking use of the 1986 Desireless track Voyage, voyage which also features prominently on the trailer. 

Listening to the track after the movie can’t help but recall memories of Laura and Ljoha’s unlikely sojourn together like recollections of a well spent vacation that didn’t quite play out the way you planned it but ultimately worked out for all involved anyway.  While not overtly a feel-good romantic comedy, its quiet charms, beautiful locations and chipper attitude are infectious and like Laura herself you’ll be left feeling oddly happy you took the trip with them.

--Andrew Kotwicki