Sometimes all you need to make an incredible movie is two people talking. That’s evidenced with great success in Compartment No. 6, the new film from director Juho Kuosmanen. Co-winner of the Cannes Grand Prix this year, the film arrives at TIFF with the story of two passengers who meet on a train for a days-long journey they’ll never forget. Having to share the titular compartment for the extent of their ride to Murmansk, a remote city in the Arctic circle, the two at first couldn’t seem to be more different. Over the trip, however, they’ll find that bonds can often form where you least expect them.
That might make Compartment No. 6 sounds like a maudlin affair. It is anything but. When Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish grad student on her way to Murmansk to see some ancient rock drawings, first meets Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a hard-drinking louche heading there for work, she is repulsed and perhaps even a bit frightened. He treats the compartment like it’s his own home, making it a pigsty and immediately invading her personal space to the point where she must leave out of sheer discomfort.
Laura spends hours wandering the train, looking for anywhere else to stay, and eventually decides to call it quits and head back home. A call to her distanced, perpetually busy and seemingly unloving partner forces her to change her mind, to push on with this venture because she said that she was going to do it. She returns back to the compartment where Ljoha lurks, and that’s when the strangest thing starts to happen. The two begin to hit it off, slowly but surely. Ljoha’s abrasiveness oddly becomes charming, both to Laura and to the audience, and the two find themselves connecting in a world so diametrically opposed to connection.
The more time these two spend together, the more those walls come down – separations of class, profession, nationality, even surface sensibilities are shown to be nothing more than thin barriers which just need some willingness to step outside of your comfort zone to bring down. Comparisons to films like Before Sunrise are inevitable, but there’s something more nuanced to the approach that Kuosmanen takes with his film.
Compartment No. 6 oddly never feels predetermined, even though it’s of course a film that was written for the screen. We are charting a narrative, but that line between audience and character becomes so blurred that you feel these are real human beings you are watching develop before your very eyes, as if you are creating these relationships with both of them the way they are with each other. Certainly some of that credit goes to Kuosmanen’s naturalistic directing style, but the feat that this film pulls off would have been impossible without the sensational work from Haarla and Borisov, two of the best performances of the year.
In the intro video before the TIFF screening of Compartment No. 6, Kuosmanen explained that when he and co-writers Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman first began writing the film (based on a 2011 novel of the same name), they saw it as a story about two very different people realizing that they shared things in common. As the process wore on, however, he came to discover that it’s actually about two very similar people realizing that the things separating them were all artificial constructs. This is such a beautiful sentiment that we could all take to heart more in our everyday lives.
Each day we all feel distanced from those around us in one way or another. Perhaps life doesn’t afford us the opportunity to build more meaningful bonds all the time, and thus we feel restricted to our select group of close companions, or like these two characters we feel entirely alone. What Compartment No. 6 demonstrates is that the possibilities are all around you to make these lasting connections every single day. You simply must open your heart, open your soul, and reach out to form that bridge to create something significant. Compartment No. 6 is the kind of movie that changes the way you see the world.