Close encounter

Strange things happen on Russian railways. In Eugenio Martin’s science fiction film Horror Express (1972), a group of passengers is menaced by a newly-thawed prehistoric humanoid brought aboard by a British anthropologist. In Brad Anderson’s thriller Transsiberia (2008), an American couple become embroiled in a nightmare of duplicity, drug-smuggling and homicide. In CJ Farrington’s novel Death on the Trans-Siberian Express (2013) … well, you get the picture: all that time, all that taiga, all that confinement in cramped little berths shared by roommates you can’t choose. As a narrative set up, it is steeped in contingency and potential for the uncanny.

Juho Kuosmanen’s film Compartment No. 6 is fairly low on incident. There is some drinking, some awkwardness; a little menace, a little tension. Atmosphere counts for much – but contingency remains integral. Based on a Finnish novel of the same title (Hytti nro 6, 2011) by Rosa Liksom, and set in the late 1990s, the story concerns the burgeoning bond between an unlikely pair as they trundle north from Moscow to Murmansk: the boorish Russian mine-worker Lyokha and the jejune Finnish language student Laura. Both are around the same age, mid-to-late-twenties, but the points of commonality end there. Lyokha is gruff, bibulous, confrontational and aggressively eager for contact. He eats sausage in a manner in which you would not wish a fellow passenger to eat his sausage, and when he’s drunk, which is often, his lewdness takes on a threatening air. His head is closely shaved, convict-style. Laura is hesitant, eager to retreat into her Walkman and out of her depth. Her Russian is decent, but her knowledge of the country is based on metropolitan Muscovite circles. She balks at the rudeness of the train staff. Her hair hangs primly around her shoulders.

Laura is also lovesick. In the opening scene, we see her at a party in Moscow held by her “friend” (lover), the urbane, erudite and older Irina (hair artfully dishevelled). Here, too, Laura is out of her depth, but in a wide-eyed, enamored way. The apartment is bohemian, the windows are high, the academic guests play spot the literary quotation. Laura struggles to pronounce “Akhmatova” and is gently chided. Irina has been telling Laura about the recently discovered Kanozero petroglyphs in the Arctic Circle. The pair have planned a romantic trip to visit these Stone Age wonders, but Irina has had to pull out and Laura is to go alone. As the narrative develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Irina’s abandonment is more fundamental.

This first becomes apparent when Laura impulsively leaves the train on the first long stop, at St Petersburg. Lyokha has rattled her (he wonders if she’s a prostitute), and our ingénue is considering turning back. She tearfully phones her lover, but Irina is distracted – and has company. Suddenly, compartment no. 6 seems the better bet. When Laura returns, Lyokha is offended that his cabinmate took her belongings with her. Does she think he is a thief?

Gradually, relations thaw. Laura shows she has a sense of humour when Lyokha demands to learn some Finnish. “How do you say I love you?” he asks. “Haista vittu”, she replies – Finnish for “fuck you”. “Haista vittu”, he dreamily intones – a misunderstanding that will later be reprised to exquisite effect. The pair’s differences are further laid out when Lyokha asks why Laura is going to Murmansk. She explains about the petroglyphs, and – perhaps suddenly embarrassed by her whimsicality – pretends to be an archaeology student. He is nonplussed: “you’re taking this train … to that shithole … just to look … unbelievable.” But Laura proves to be equally unsophisticated when it comes to economics. Lyokha may not care about the petroglyphs, but he does value other sorts of rock: there is a vast iron ore mine in Olenogorsk and that’s where he’s heading for work. “Are you a builder?”, asks Laura, witlessly. “It’s just to make some dough… I’m saving for my own business.” “What kind of business?” “Just… business.”

Along with the rich tradition of railway films – from David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise – Kuosmanen has cited Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation as an influence: “You feel so happy for them, but at the same time you really hope they don’t have sex”, he has said. Lyokha and Laura spend a lot of time together not having sex, though a delicate erotic tension does build, and our hopes for them are more complex than for the characters played by Bill Murray (old, famous, sad) and Scarlett Johansson (young, dreamy, bored) in Coppola’s film. This is because there is a different power balance at play, brilliantly highlighted by the three major incidents that take place on the journey.

In the first, on an overnight stopover at Petrozavodsk, Lyokha manages to persuade an initially recalcitrant Laura to leave the train and spend the evening with him and his “friend”: “You like old stuff and she is really old.” The three share a lovely, drunken evening, and there is much tenderness between Lyokha and the old woman. All we know about her is that she’s not Lyokha’s mother (“she’s better than mom”). In the second, a handsome, cultured young Finnish man boards the train. Laura is initially relieved for the new companionship and Lyokha clearly hurt by this transfer in her attentions. But the Finn soon proves to be insufferable – and worse. In the third, nearing Murmansk, Lyokha suggests that he and Laura celebrate their journey’s end in the restaurant car. He puts on a nice shirt and things start well. But then Laura shows him a sketch she’s drawn of him and suggests they swap addresses; worse, she asks him to sketch her too. This is all too much for Lyokha, who recoils in defensive anger: “So we’ll be best friends? … It’s a stupid idea”. Each episode shows a different aspect of Lyokha’s vulnerability, most notably this last one, during which it becomes clear to him, if not to Laura, that his coarseness will forever be an impediment to their relationship.

Compartment No. 6 is a beautiful film, in its warmth and subtlety. Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov put in magnificent performances as Laura and Lyokha, and Jani-Petteri Passi’s cinematography patiently captures the growing intimacy. We spend a lot of time with both characters in frame, and not much else; outside shots are sparingly used. The final scenes, off the train, are packed with small surprises, and drenched in ambiguous redemption.

Since the film was first released at Cannes last year, Kuosmanen has been forced to re-evaluate his narrative of an uncouth but ultimately loveable Russian imposing himself on a physically vulnerable Finn. Compartment No. 6 has been well-received in Russia. “They were amazed that a foreign filmmaker could so sympathetically represent Russia and Russians”, the director told the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw last month. What, then, does this mean in the current context? While Kuosmanen has been quick to point out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has been going on for eight years”, it has also been interesting to learn of his regret. “I wish it was a film of no nation”, he told Bradshaw. And while the dating is deliberately hazy, he has recently been clear to emphasize that it is set in 1998. “I don’t want it to have anything to do with Putin”, he told Jason Solomons in the New European, also last month. “[Putin] came in 1999 and my film must have no connection to him at all.”

This impulse is understandable but it does a disservice to viewers. Compartment No. 6 may have no direct “connection” to Vladimir, but it is unmistakably set in an antecedent of today’s Russia, right down to the pervasive inequality (see the “shithole” of Murmansk), the anti-Western resentment (see Laura’s initial treatment by the train staff, as well as by Lyokha), the drive to get ahead in “business”, and the emphasis on extracting natural resources in order to do so. Even more of a disservice would be any attempt to explain away Lyokha as some kind of anti-Putin hero-in-the-making. “This is a Russian without a Z on his clothes or in his heart”, wrote Bradshaw in his review. Is it? Lyokha may be portrayed as wonderfully three-dimensional and human, but most human beings are, just as they are easy to manipulate with propaganda, chauvinism and fear. Lyokha is clearly not averse to nativism. “What do you have in Estonia that we don’t have here?” he slurs at Laura early on, mistaking her nationality. Some quarter-century later, Lyokha might indeed be wearing a Z, or not, or apathetic about those who do, just as his eighteen-year-old son might be fighting in Ukraine, willingly or unwillingly. Perhaps this is what makes watching Compartment No. 6 right now so unsettling.

Toby Lichtigis Fiction and Politics Editor at theTLS

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