“Compartment No. 6” toys with the rom-com formula, to the point where it’s not really accurate to describe it as either a romance or comedy. It also removes the heterosexuality. But it never does anything especially subversive with its departures, leaving intact the dubious idea that a man and woman who initially hate each other will develop affection if she just puts up with him long enough.
Its protagonist, Laura (Seidi Haarla), is a Finnish archeologist living in Moscow. She’s fallen hard for Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a Russian woman with an active social life — the opening scene takes place at a party she’s hosting — and an enviable apartment. (Indeed, Laura admits the apartment is one of her prime attractions.) On a train ride to the arctic port of Murmansk to look at petroglyphs, she’s forced to share a carriage with a boorish Russian man, Lhoja (Yuri Borisov). Lhoja suggests that she’s a sex worker, using much less polite and respectful language. His shaved head gives him a thuggish appearance. At first, Laura is repulsed by him, but she’s unable to move to a different cabin on the crowded train.
While Laura and Lhoja don’t entirely play out the cliché of tension and anger leading to true love, the film comes off as vague and evasive, rather than complex and subtle. Laura initially tells him that she has a boyfriend back in Moscow; an hour into “Compartment No. 6,” she feels comfortable enough around him to admit the “boyfriend” is actually a woman. Lhoja is more talkative than Laura, but both characters spend a lot of silent time in each other’s company. His behavior, such as taking a swig of vodka before getting behind the wheel of a car, is stereotypically Russian, but his machismo is a layer that gets peeled away. However, it’s not certain what remains underneath.
While traveling, Laura realizes that her relationship with Irina wasn’t as serious as she thought. Irina enjoys her company but isn’t about to ask her to move in together. The film does not make a big deal out of her potential attraction to both men and women, but again, it feels slightly evasive that it never confronts this question. She and Lhoja kiss, but go no further. In an interview, the director says “What really interested me were the feelings that are beyond sexual tension. Romantic love stories are often too narrow, do they fall in love? If so, when do they have sex?”
At least on this trip, the quest to see ancient ruins drives Laura. It feels appropriate that “Compartment No. 6” opens in New York during the dead of winter. The film alternates between warmly lit scenes on the train and harsh, snowy vistas. Near the end, Laura and Lhoja have to walk through a binding fog of snow. Kuosmanen’s widescreen frame is suitably claustrophobic in boxy shots onboard the train and attempts to capture the power of nature outside.
“Compartment No. 6” feels aware that old formulas about love stories no longer work, especially in a culture where women can choose male or female partners. But it still suggests that Lhoja and Laura have some bond by virtue of spending so much time around each other, no matter how much of a jerk he is at first. She opens up to him because she realizes the flaws of her life in Moscow, even if she initially tells him the Finnish phrase for “f**k you” when he asks how to say “I love you” in her native language.
This trip means a lot to her, but even if it’s not a conventional love story, everything beyond the three central characters seems hastily added. The preconceptions Finns have towards Russians (and vice versa), her career, and, especially, the passion that would motivate her to go to such lengths to look at ancient stones all take second fiddle to the relationship between Lhoja and Laura. To its credit, the film does not end with them together, but it still sticks with the idea that something positive will happen if a woman puts up with a man she can’t stand. The endless train ride might be a metaphor for a liminal state where everything is up for grabs, but “Compartment No. 6” never makes the enigmas behind its characters’ actions and feelings matter much.
COMPARTMENT NO. 6 | Directed by Juho Kuosmanen | Sony Pictures Classics | In Russian with English subtitles | OpensJan. 26th at the Angelika