Content warning: This article contains a brief mention of sexual assault.
A crucial scene arrives early in “Compartment No. 6.” An archaeology student (Seidi Haarla) boards a train, where she shares the titular compartment with a miner (Yuriy Borisov). They’re both headed to Murmansk but have little else in common. She comes prepared with a camcorder and memories of Moscow, he comes with booze and a collapsible cup. Viewers meet her, the intellectuals she schmoozes with and Irina (Dinara Drukarova), who describes the woman as her “lovely Finnish friend” on her way “far, far” north to see some ancient petroglyphs. The intellectuals call her Irina’s “lodger,” but the reaction, from them and us, is the same: “Ah.”
The woman is a lodger in every sense of the word: at Irina’s home, on the train and in Juho Kuosmanen’s film, which doesn’t bother giving her a name. (The credits call her Laura).
Kuosmanen’s film doesn’t give much thought to Laura at all — she’s vague, often inscrutable, the typological face of an interchangeable actor on the way to study some petroglyphs. The effort seems to have gone to her companion, the named miner Ljoha who, on Laura’s first night sharing the compartment with him, drunkenly makes crude remarks about Estonia, boasts about Russia, asks if she’s selling sex and gropes her. She leaves.
Or she tries to. Laura asks to be reseated, but the powers that be seem afraid of some higher authority and Laura is told no accommodations can be made, which could have piqued a study of capitalism’s brutality, but Kuosmanen’s head is still in the compartment, with Ljoha. Instead, the film pushes the two back together on what the director frames as a journey of self-discovery, where a woman realizes her friends and lover are snakes, and that this apparently down-to-earth miner is lovable.
There are hints that Laura is searching for some fulfillment she hasn’t found. Every time she calls Irina, she finds Irina distracted and, more often than not, trying to get off the phone. It could be a particularly prescient film if it found a way to translate that longing into a concrete relationship between Laura and Ljoha; not necessarily a recalibration of the film’s allegiances, but more attention to its blindspots.
There’s an imbalance of attention in the film, as it seldom scrutinizes Ljoha, who believes other people’s boundaries are permeable, despite the number of assumptions it makes about Laura. It assumes she’ll push back against him. It assumes she’s irritable. But it also assumes she will, after everything, fall in love with him.
More than a decade ago, co-chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Jean-Luc Godard once claimed that all anyone needed to make a film was a girl and a gun.” The remark comes in reference to “Drive,” a movie with a very clear allegiance to a guy and a car. In this framework, it’s woefully unclear where “Compartment No. 6” stands. Is it a girl and a train? A guy and a train? Girl and guy? That last formula has worked well for Richard Linklater and his “Before” trilogy, a body of work to which Kuosmanen’s film has been compared.
It shouldn’t be. Linklater’s characters have psychological interiority and cogent circumstances for his characters to fall in love. He also puts his characters on more even footing.
Kuosmanen does no such thing. His Laura is an aspirational auteur’s template, that new wave of the New Wave. Her defining characteristic is that she’s largely unidentifiable and pliable to the needs of the writers. In practice, it gives writers Andris Feldmanis and Kuosmanen complete carte blanche to fashion a script — and film — that doesn’t question itself.
As “Compartment No. 6” goes on, things become more and more by the book. The camera, which kicked things off with a stale shot of Laura, descends further into myopia. One of the few effective shots — of Laura returning to the compartment, clambering up onto her bunk — is claustrophobic, but, like the rest of the film, reveals little.