Laura has a dream: to visit the Russian city of Murmansk to see the petroglyphs – forms from the past that will help her understand the present. And she is so anxious to see them she will travel solo from Moscow to the archaeological site. She dons a baggy coat, heaves a backpack onto her back and boards a train on the legendary Trans-Siberian railway en route to her desired destination, sharing a cabin with an unknown young Russian man. He’s crude, gruff and drinks too much.
Inside a tiny compartment, without mobile phones or Netflix (it’s the 90s, a time of phone booths, walkmans and old-style video cameras), they have no choice but to spend time together, despite their differences. They will clash on multiple occasions but, as the saying goes, opposites attract. An archaeology student and a miner. She’s smiley and affable, he’s grumpy, seems dodgy and has a glowering look. Yet everything that separates them will end up uniting them.
Directed by Finland’s Juho Kuosmanen (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, 2016), this feature-length film is based on Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel of the same name. Compartment No. 6 is a Finnish film that was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and shared the Grand Prix award with A Hero, by Asghar Farhadi. It was also shortlisted for the Best International Feature Film at the Oscars and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, among other nominations.
Critics have lavished praise on the human story that unfolds between the two protagonists, excellently played by Seidi Haarla (Force of Habit, 2019) and Yuri Aleksándrovich Borísov (Doroga na Berlin, 2015). It’s easy to believe they have just met, are poles apart and, what’s more, that he’s probably a criminal. The relationship that unfolds between them is frankly the film’s strong point.
Appearances can be deceiving. Under the skin of a seeming murderer, hides a harmless lamb. Underneath all the tough guy posturing and disturbing utterances like “All humans should be killed,” it turns out the protagonist, Lyokha, has trouble managing his emotions. Shots of him kicking the snow, angry at life, are an example of this. Deep down, what he lacks is what many humans in modern society also crave – to be loved. A hug, a tender word, the gift of a drawing. Some sign of affection to make us feel special. And when we are touched, we melt like a candle in a fire. All our ferocity fades in seconds. We become vulnerable when someone reaches into the depths of our being, when they penetrate our shell. And then from within blossoms a surprisingly pleasant and considerate soul now willing to help you achieve your dream.
With its ‘road trip’ format, Compartment No. 6 is also an experience of the journey itself. As travelers (occasional or regular ones), we can identify with some of the things Laura goes through: fatigue, eagerness to reach a destination, a desire to record everything in order to remember it later, the memories we make along the way, the people we meet, and so on.
Travel is always an adventure, no matter how much we have mapped out the route. There will always be some character that surprises us, or shares their experience with us. And when we return home, we recall that claustrophobic train car, the clatter of the train on the tracks, how cold it was in that station, and how bad the food was, but also that wonderful older woman we met and whose words made a big impact on us, how it felt to finally arrive at our destination, and the catchy French song ‘Voyage, voyage’ by Desireless, which plays several times in the film and sticks in our heads. That’s why we like to travel, because thanks to the experiences and the people we encounter along the way, we always come home wiser.