I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until about 30 minutes into Juho Kuosmanen’s film about a Finnish student traveling by train from Moscow to the Arctic Circle—which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2021—that I realized it was set in 1994. I should have been immediately clued in by the total absence of cell phones, but I apparently have an inbred prejudice about Russia that sees it as basically still looking as shabby as it did during the Soviet era, even though it’s been more than thirty years. In that regard, Kuosmanen’s biggest achievement may be the integrity of his production design and how it expresses the hopes and dreams—or lack thereof—of post-Soviet Russians.
The student, Laura (Seidi Haarla), is presented as being somewhat lazy in her academic endeavors. She’s in Moscow to study the language but mostly she stays because of her romantic relationship with Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a relationship that we quickly realize is on the rocks, since Irina hangs with a more intellectual crowd that doesn’t countenance her Finnish girlfriend’s linguistic limitations. Laura and Irina had planned a joint trip to Murmansk to observe the petroglyphs, ancient inscriptions on rocks that line the shore of the Arctic Sea, but at the last minute Irina pulls out without much explanation, obviously hoping that Laura will take the hint. Heartbroken but determined to make the trip anyway, Laura sets off by herself and ends up sharing a train compartment with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a crude example of Soviet manhood cast adrift by the loss of central planning. He’s on his way north to take a seasonal job in construction. Laura is at once put off by Ljoha’s drunkenness and attempts at some kind of rapport—he tries to teach her some dirty Russian words and wonders if she’s a sex worker going to the same place he is—and she bolts the compartment to seek another one. The conductor has no sympathy whatsoever.
So they’re stuck with each other and, as you can probably guess, they do establish a rapport based on their respective insecurities. Laura’s aren’t that difficult to pin down. At every stop she seeks out a pay phone and calls Irina in the hopes that there’s still some spark left. Ljoha’s are more difficult to identify, but they seem inextricably linked to his inability to make a life of meaning in such a chaotic social milieu, but, of course, he can’t quite articulate this feeling. The ice between the two finally cracks when, during an overnight layover, Ljoha invites Laura to an elderly female acquaintance’s house for a meal, and in the interaction between the two Russians (the old woman’s relationship to Ljoha is not clear) she sees his basic humanity. Later, after meeting a fellow Finnish traveler who tags along and then steals Laura’s camera, she recognizes in Ljoha something of her own restlessness and disappointment: “All humans should be killed,” he says, only half-jokingly, when he learns of the theft. Though the two do not develop any kind of romantic feelings, Ljoha shows flashes of jealousy for reasons that aren’t explained, but, in the end, he becomes the trusted road companion she needs, and a much stronger link to the Russia she has yet to understand.
In Russian and Finnish. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Compartment No. 6 home page in Japanese
photo by Sami Kuokkanen (c) 2021 Aamu Film Company, Achtung Panda!, Amrion Production, CTB Film Production