Compartment No. 6
Seidi Haarla, Yuri Borisov
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… as coldly functional as its name suggests.
Set in Russia and opening with Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, this film is all about communication barriers, particularly those along language lines. It opens with Finnish student Laura (Seidi Haarla) on a train ride from Moscow to Murmansk, where she is stuck in the same compartment as brash Russian miner Lyokha (Yuri Borisov), but as the story goes on, the distance between these people is shown to be more than just lingual.
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Compartment No. 6 establishes itself as an Eastern European spin on something like Before Sunrise or maybe even Planes, Trains & Automobiles, where characters with little to nothing in common are crammed into a confined space together and, over time, begin to understand each other better.
Juho Kuosmanen’s direction banks on naturalism and a lack of outward exposition, letting the actors’ movements and gestures carry the discomfort, while her scripting shows sizeable knowledge of social distance in its various flavours. Pining for loved ones over great distances, feeling isolated and alone when sitting right next to other people, differentiating between what is said and what is meant, the urge to physically move when you’re getting too close emotionally; there’s palpable awkwardness here.
However, stories like this that fixate on people communicating (or, in most cases, failing to) need interesting characters at their core to work. While Haarla and Borisov do quite well with the material they’ve been given, they don’t provide a sturdy-enough foundation to support the narrative.
The direction echoes the emotional deadness between them, but it also makes the mistake of having that translate directly to how the audience perceives the characters. And unlike something like Francis Lee’s Ammonite, which also involved a gradual build-up to when the two leads warmed up to each other in more ways than one, there’s no real chemistry or intriguing character detail here to make sticking around seem like it will bear fruit.
It doesn’t help that the story parameters on their own are rather dicey, involving a woman being stuck on a train with a man she actively doesn’t want to be in the same room with from the start. Again, it fits the general air of discomfort, but with the way their interactions and eventual budding relationship develop, it weirdly misses a fairly obvious place to start examining social norms and anxieties, instead going for a muted kind of sentimentality.
Between Lyokha’s comments throughout and Laura’s queer romantic history, there’s an uncomfortable… well, there’s no other way to put it, straight lens to how the story is being presented, which makes investing in it that much tougher.
Compartment No. 6 is as coldly functional as its name suggests. It is the feeling of falling asleep on a train, while your mind idly tries to create cohesion out of the various disinteresting and context-free conversations other passengers are having within earshot, but without the hypnagogic jerk to bring you out of it. There are solid ideas here to do with the social barriers that separate people, and the actors are doing their best, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s own communication difficulties.