I think if you asked anyone what the most romantic way to travel was the percentage of people who answered “by train” would be pretty high. Ships would probably be up there too—even the Titanic’s built for love!—but there’s something about train travel (and no, don’t say it’s “the entering tunnels” part) that just reeks of romance, even if the reality scarcely matches up. We’ve been brainwashed by enough Brief Encounters and Before Sunrises to intrinsically believe it so—just think upon all of the tearful farewells we’ve witnessed as trains pull out from stations, with enough lovers running alongside to make our knees ache just thinking about it. I suppose it’s the slow-going of the train (same goes for the ship) that assists this spectral essence of amore on rails—you don’t really have the time to get to know anybody on a plane. Nor the leg-room—importantly a train also gives you the ability to wander. It’s its own slow-going world unto itself, a whirl of vistas streaking alongside with the possibility of a handsome stranger seated across from you for dinner, and then hey who knows, maybe soon you’ll be maneuvering those beds that flop on down from above…
Now, you take this train thing, and then you add on some magical glittering snow falling slowly over it all a la Doctor Zhivago or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Forget about it. Romance overload. And that’s what makes Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No 6 (on the shortlist for this year’s Best International Feature prize at the Oscars and hitting U.S. theaters this week) such a wily little astonishment. Teasing at our grand high romantic notions the entire way this movie is both what we think it is and simultaneously isn’t, not in any way that we expect it to be. It looks at everything it looks at, from Train Travel to Romance to ancient writings carved into stone walls implacable along the sea, through the same flat unromantic lens, seeing the grime under the fingernails and the dank mush of dirty weather. And piece by piece, instrument by instrument, its cacophony of discordant sounds hums through to a tune so sudden, tender, and beautiful that it’ll split your head open with well earned and deserved joy at just the feat of living; of playing in the snow.
We first meet Laura (Seidi Haarla) in Moscow, a Finnish archeology student clearly feeling out of place and overwhelmed by the cool and cosmopolitan new people around her. Her girlfriend Irina, who Laura gazes at with something akin to awe, is throwing a party, and Laura doesn’t read as the slightest bit comfortable among Irina’s urbane intellectual pals, skulking off to the kitchen after embarrassing herself playing some trivia. Soon thereafter she and Irina are meant to take a trip together to the Northern tip of Russia near Finland, to an arctic coastland port-town called Murmansk to see some ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock there, but work inconveniently comes up for Irina and so Laura decides to go on her own. What could go wrong? Who wouldn’t want to take a several day train-ride by one’s self through the brutal Russian winter landscape to stare at some unknowable, unreachable rocks anyway? Certainly, Laura is the kind of person who would!
Or so she tells herself. Haarla’s lovely performance, mostly interiorized, lets us see straight away that Laura isn’t too certain about anything that she’s doing; about any of this person that she’s being in this foreign place. She sets herself this impossible task because it’s there, because it’s something she’s heard people talk about, because to not do it would in her head disappoint the people who she wants to impress. But the whole of it seems ill-defined and distant even before Laura boards the train, and definitely before she finds herself sharing the sleeping compartment her girlfriend booked with a drunken thug named Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov, a moody revelation). Ljoha is a Russian miner headed back to work in Murmansk seemingly without a single speck of imagination anywhere about his person; he’s wasted before the first night has passed, and through some mixture of miscommunication and loutishness he’s half-assaulted her to boot. It’s immediately our worst nightmares about long travel turned flesh—trapped in a small space with terrible people for an extended period of time—oh joy, let’s jump.
Still, to call these two an Odd Couple would reduce them to types that Kuosmanen’s smart and unassailingly humane film has not much interest in at all—Laura isn’t a prissy Joan Wilder type in need of some behavioral reeducation; unlike Rose Dewitt Bukater this lady plainly has spit in her past. And we quickly see Ljoha’s bald, bad first impressions slide off to reveal a tender thoughtful fella there under the shaved head and humorless demeanor. And Laura, for all her unsure airs about her, pretty much always has the upper hand between these two temporarily handcuffed people. When another Finn comes on-board the train she latches on, hoping to put some needed distance between herself and her testy compartment-mate, landing the first blow but knocking herself back with how it lands. She comes to regret the move, yes, but how, in Kuosmanen’s capable hands, is a total surprise. As is every step this story takes as it winds, snow-ward, on to a conclusion as mysterious as are those symbols carved in wet sea-stones thousands of years back.
Without getting into specifics what Laura’s loss there at film’s middle does have to do with is with memory—the person she thought she was in Moscow is quite literally stolen from her, and Laura finds herself empty-handed, with no solid proof of who she is, or rather of who she was going to show other people she could be. It’s as if the weather of a million years swept in and wiped the Rosetta Stone of herself sheen clean, a horrifying prospect for a person so addicted to the past that she studies it for a living, but perhaps just the jolt she needed. Compartment No 6 wears these metaphors lightly. But when Ljoha’s first instinct is to have Laura re-tell her memories to him, to weep through the stories that made her up and brought her to this place, we weep along, touched as she is by this delicate re-assemblance of self, in one’s own words, in one’s own scope. He gives her reclamation of what matters, an awareness of the here and now that’s about as invaluable a gift as one can get. Who are we to doubt such wonders? And what a lovely and wondrous gift this film is.