On paper, Finland’s official entry for the International Feature Film Oscar sounds like a claustrophobic, two people talking in a room bore. In the right hands, however, and co-writer-director Juho Kuosmanen has a very good pair of hands, this blend of bleak and heartwarming proved completely captivating. Imagine Before Sunrise without the sunrise, beautiful surroundings, or any sense of hope, and you’ll get the picture.
Seidi Haarla, an actor with the malleable facial expressions of Kate McKinnon, plays Laura, a Finnish archeology student in early 90s Moscow. She plans a winter trip to Murmansk with her professor girlfriend to see some petroglyphs, a sharp contrast to the comparatively bohemian lifestyle they lead in the big city. When her girlfriend unexpectedly cancels, Laura goes it alone and finds herself forced to share a train cabin with a young, surly, drunken Russian named Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). They definitely do not meet cute, although we seemingly have the template for an opposites attract rom-com at play here. The dingy Post-Soviet train, the unforgivingly brutal surroundings viscerally captured by cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi, and the nihilism of our two lead characters guarantees we’re not anywhere close to Notting Hill territory.
While the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the train, the handheld camera work melding together with these two very messy, real characters kept me interested throughout. Laura faces one disappointment after another, but soldiers on defiantly, while Ljoha appears completely disinterested in his surroundings, but has unexpected reserves of compassion buried deep inside. What makes this film matter, what makes it feel special, are the tiny details and the joy of watching two seeming opposites find something to appreciate in the other, however dour they may appear on the surface. You can almost feel the freezing temperatures, the wet snow, and the nightmare fuel-inspired scenery, and yet these two souls find a measure of happiness in it.
While Laura’s queerness gets discussed, the filmmakers allow room for fluidity and a window into a unique type of chemistry between our main characters. I found myself constantly reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, another tale of hardscrabble people facing off against the harshness of a subzero world. Laura and Ljoha wear the reminders of the past on their sleeves, but use their tough exteriors to navigate towards a future, however uncertain. It’s no accident that archaeology plays a part in this film’s themes.
The marriage of the unconventional characters set in a fairly by-the-numbers structure gets its biggest thrills in the third act, which features its own version of the “racing to the airport” trope and perhaps the most laugh-out-loud final callback which brought a tear to my eye as I continued chuckling. I just fell in love with these two crazy kids. Who knew that the dank, damp, dark bowels of Russia could still manage to put a spring in my step?
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Compartment No. 6 is now playing in theaters only.