Just because I rattled off three International Feature reviews yesterday doesn’t mean I’ve run out of entries to look at. I’ve still got two more submissions in the chamber, and I’ll have two more by this time next week. It’s an embarrassment of riches this year, with one hopeful after another getting the distribution and viewership needed to give it a shot at next year’s Oscars.
Today we look at Finland’s submission, Compartment No. 6, directed by Juho Kuosmanen, and based on the novel by Rosa Liksom. It’s a co-production of Finland and Russia, with the former putting it forward to the Academy. The film starts out promisingly enough, with some scenes and characters that you wouldn’t expect to see in this kind of project, especially with Russia’s staunch anti-gay policies. But unfortunately, after a while the plot drags at a pace slower than its plodding setting, giving the viewer too much time to take stock and realize that much of this doesn’t make sense.
An archaeology student named Laura (Seidi Haarla) is living in Moscow with her artistic, bohemian girlfriend, Irina (Dinara Drukarova, who previously appeared in the Oscar-winning French film, Amour). And like I said, it’s amazing that a film that begins with an explicit same-sex couple got funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture. It’s probably because the opening scene, where Irina entertains her academic friends at her flat, is little more than a setup device to propel the main narrative.
We see that Laura, though passionately in love with Irina, doesn’t fit in well with her circles, and is even snidely dismissed by one guest under his breath as an air quotes, “lodger,” because they have to hide their coupling. We also learn that Laura has an affinity for petroglyphs, and is about to leave for a trip up north to Murmansk, near the borders with Finland and Norway, to view and study glyphs in the rocks there. The plan was for Laura and Irina to go together, but Irina has to stay behind, so Laura’s going solo.
This leads to the main action of the film, the actual journey to Murmansk aboard a train, where Laura shares the titular sleeping compartment with a Russian miner named Ljoha (Yuri Borisov). Over the course of a four-day journey, Ljoha goes from annoyance, to casual friend, to potential love interest, as little by little Laura sheds her past life (not to mention prized possessions that link her to it) and warms up to him.
This is a pretty far-fetched concept given the way we’re introduced to these characters. Laura may not be the most comfortable with Irina’s friends, but there’s never any doubt that she’s committed to her, and we’re given no indication that there’s any strain on their relationship before Laura sets out. Yet on the voyage, the two times Laura calls Irina (from landlines and pay phones), Irina sounds preoccupied, as if the moment Laura left they ceased to exist as a couple. It feels like a weird and convenient hand wave to allow Laura’s heart to wander, and it’s not natural at all.
Meanwhile, you have Ljoha (whose name we only learn because a stowaway who doesn’t speak Russian confuses it for “Aloha”), who we meet in the sleeper car already drunk and proceeding to get drunker the moment he sits down. Before he even says a word, he’s sloshed, and by the time he does talk, all he does is sloppily hit on Laura, leading to a strange running meet-cute line where Laura tells him that the Finnish phrase for “Go fuck yourself” actually means “I love you.”
Given these two facts, it’s really hard to believe that Laura’s entire outlook on romance could change over the course of just four days. And even that’s a bit of a stretch, because a simple Google search will tell you the trip only takes about a day and a half by train, give or take a few hours for weather interference. It is Arctic northwest Russia, after all.
There’s a lot about this story that simply doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense that Irina would blow off her girlfriend the moment she’s gone. It doesn’t make sense that Ljoha’s boorish behavior and constant needling would eventually come off as charming. Hell, for someone so obsessed with petroglyphs, it makes absolutely no sense that Laura would not know that there are no tours of the area during winter months, which necessitates reuniting with Ljoha after the train ride is over, so that he can hustle their way to the final destination. Anyone who really cared about the subject, especially someone who lives in Finland and Russia, would know to only go during the summer months. If not for all these contrivances, this story couldn’t happen, and that’s an unsatisfying way to go about things.
That said, the film is not a total loss. The performances are actually quite strong, especially Borisov’s. I don’t buy that Ljoha and Laura would have any chemistry, but I still enjoyed watching him give it his all, whether he was being drunk and goofy or self-conscious and subdued. Also, the photography is beyond excellent, especially given the VERY tight quarters of the train as a filming location. What cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi is able to pull off here is really quite amazing given the physical constraints, and there’s still time to get some pretty gorgeous exterior shots of snow falling as well.
Apart from that, there’s not much to recommend. It doesn’t help that in addition to all the plot coincidences that are crucial to the story succeeding, a lot of times the film just goes on for too long, devolving into boring pablum. Oddly enough, the film would have moved at a quicker pace, and been more believable, if we didn’t even bother establishing Laura and Irina’s relationship. All that opening scene does is tell us why Laura gets on the train. You could easily have started the film on the train, had Ljoha see her reading her textbook on petroglyphs (her only major possession apart from a camcorder where she watches home videos of her and Irina), and then bring Irina up in conversation to serve the same narrative purpose. You’d create a more organic reason for Laura and Ljoha to get to know one another, and you’d cut about 10 minutes from the movie without losing any story heft.
Somehow this shared the Grand Prix award at Cannes with A Hero, and from where I sit, the Iranian entry is ahead by leaps and bounds. This isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it did feel kind of pointless at times. It’s a simple boy meets girl story with a very contrived context that just feels artificial. Clearly the Cannes voters saw something I didn’t, and if you see it, maybe you will, too. All I know is that by the halfway point, I wanted to crawl up onto the pull-down cot and put myself to sleep for the rest of the ride.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever taken an overnight train ride? Are you looking forward to any specific country’s entry, and if so, can you help me track it down? Let me know!