4/10 On Feb. 8, Compartment No. 6, a slice-of-life train ride across the Russian countryside and the Finnish-language submission to the Academy for the Best International Film of 2021 and one of 15 shortlisted so that voters might actually watch it, was cast out as one of the bottom 10 to not receive a nomination. Russia used the same Soviet rail system to invade Ukraine weeks later.
Compartment No. 6 of the sleeper train from Moscow to Murmansk, Russia, sometime in the mid-‘00s based on the technology, certainly before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to make this story impossible- Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish doctoral student, has been sent by her professor and lover to the far reaches of Siberia to research the Kanozero Pteroglyphs as a pretense to break up with her. Laura chooses compartment no. 6 wanting to be alone, but she is saddled with a crass, sexist Russian oiler Lyokha (Yuri Borisov) as a bunkmate.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell if a movie is directed by a woman from just a few minutes of footage, but you can tell Compartment No. 6 writer/director Juho Kuosmanen is a man and that this is a man’s story from its acceptable behavior. Lyokha introduces himself by asking Laura if her cunt is for sale – his words – then tries to follow her into the bathroom and generally remains a petulant sex pest through the runtime. Laura never challenges him, partially because she’s still processing her breakup, but probably more because she’s scared of the strange man she’s trapped with whose first words were about her cunt.
It’s one of those “love stories” that you have to be told is a love story. Lyokha brings nothing to the table but friendliness and an entitlement complex, and the only change between the two of them is Laura avoiding him less as she learns how to handle him better, more like a cat getting used to a new owner than a woman falling in love. It’s that classic book adaptation problem – the film silently tries to imply what a first-person novel would make readily explicit and doesn’t seem to have considered how changing the perspective changes the story.
Compartment No. 6 distinctly recalls The Worst Person in the World, another prominent Best International Picture submission with a male director ostensibly shooting form a woman’s perspective, but injecting a tactless obsession with her sex life that makes sure the perspective is from without. It’s films like these that raise questions about who gets to tell stories from which populations’ perspectives – and it’s obviously not an issue of “can’t,” given the distinct feminism of auteurs like Quinten Tarantino and Alex Garland, it’s an issue of “he sure didn’t here.” This is the kind of bratty entitlement movie characters don’t get to express in a post-Weinstein world. Obviously the Weinstein scandal was localized to the American film industry, but the sorts of power dynamics that drove it are universal. Maybe the Finnish and Norwegian film industries are primed for a similar reckoning.
Watching Compartment No. 6, I find myself thinking about Garland’s Annihilation, in which the main character processes all the changes that led to her marriage’s collapse through the metaphor of an alien field that refracts genetic code, causing her body to mutate as rapidly as her personality seems to have mutated in hindsight. All fantasy films, good ones at least, boil easily down to some form of human drama – you can see it most easily in weaker Marvel movies, where it’s an important part of the formula, but tends to be disguised the most poorly.
In Compartment No. 6, there is no fantasy overtop of the human story, which should be fine, but I keep itching for something else to happen. It’s not so much the lack of metaphor as the lack of outward emotion – though this makes sense given that Laura doesn’t immediately realize she’s been dumped and also doesn’t want to show any vulnerability to Lyokha.
A movie like Compartment No. 6, a book adaptation that passes the storytelling onus onto the actors to express emotions it doesn’t make explicit and viewers to project themselves into the movie to fill its empty spaces, immediately begs questions about why Kuosmanen decided to adapt it, but researching this raised more questions than answers. It’s heavily altered from Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel, from which all the subtext seems to have been left behind – set in 1980 on the train from Moscow to Mongolia, the main character now using the Soviet rail lines that were recently vital to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to exit the U.S.S.R, the book is much more explicitly a critique of the Soviet Union, with the male lead recast as a boisterous Russian soldier and most of the text spent describing the desperate Siberian countryside near the end of the Republic’s decay.
Is Compartment No. 6 a particularly surreal watch during Putin’s assault on world peace in Ukraine? The film doesn’t exactly romanticize Russia, unless you find ice beautiful – which Finns and Russians very well might. The transition from book to screen, from an overt examination of what was happening in rural U.S.S.R. to a vague love story, has sapped so much meaning out of the story that it’s hard to conclude it’s saying anything at all.
There are plenty of positives. It’s well-acted and a good technical movie. Jani-Petteri Passi’s cinematography is nice enough, there are some pretty shots, but it’s too mired in that sort of “indie/international chic” dominated by handheld closeups, giving the film an exploratory feeling to paper over its lack of anything to say. It’s hard to give Compartment No. 6 credit for anything after spending the entire runtime wondering when it will become a breakup movie or more explicitly about rural Russia, only to get home and learn afterward that it was supposed to be about those things the entire time.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.