Friday 15 April 2022

Strangers on a train: "Compartment No. 6"

The writer-director Juho Kuosmanen announced himself internationally with 2016's 
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, a genuine heartwarmer about a lesser-known figure in Finnish sporting history. That film's considerable charm lay in its suggestive smallness, its ability to conjure an entire philosophy from a judicious slice of life. Compartment No. 6, by contrast, is Kuosmanen launching himself into international co-production and international travel - indeed, the film's subject is travel itself, the people you meet and the experiences you gather along the way. (It won the Grand Prix and glowing notices at last year's Cannes, in part - I suspect - because it was being seen by a jetset who'd had their own travel plans stymied by Covid for the best part of a year.) It opens as a study of a stranger in a strange land: this is Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish postgrad student whom we join in turn-of-the-Eighties Moscow (on the soundtrack: Roxy's "Love is the Drug", Desireless's eternal "Voyage Voyage"), where she's studying archaeology and in a relationship of some kind with an older local woman (familiar artfilm face Dinara Drukarova). Hopping aboard the sleeper train to Murmansk - where she intends to track down some petroglyphs - she finds herself sharing a carriage with a very different variety of Russian: bullet-headed, vodka-sipping, glue-sniffing alpha Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), who proceeds to get rapidly in his cups, assert Russian superiority, litter the communal table, and accuse our gal of selling her body for cash. Suboptimal companionship, then, and yet Kuosmanen, persisting with the optimism that made his breakthrough film such a tonic, maintains: a stranger is just a friend you haven't heard fart in their sleep yet.

Whether or not the film charms you to anything like to same degree as Olli Mäki may depend on the degree to which you find that optimism stretching a bit thin over the larger canvas. Where the previous film crept up on the viewer from nowhere, Compartment is running on a far more familiar track - the one carrying us from Mutual Antipathy via Hearts Thawing to Opposites Attract. Universality isn't going to harm a filmmaker's prospects in the global marketplace, but the most interesting material here is specific, tied to the utter grimness of Cold War-era train travel: the smoking, the lack of space, privacy, running water, quiet, or any warning of when your stop is coming up. Olli Mäki had that timeless black-and-white sheen going for it, but this limited colour follow-up, all sludgy browns and beiges, is so unromantic on the whole as to make those the Before Sunrise comparisons it generated in Cannes seem wildly off-mark. Whenever these prospective lovers leave the train, it's cold, wet and grey; everyone disembarking looks unwashed, unkempt, unslept. I suspect Kuosmanen would probably rather we approach the film as a youthful (mis)adventure rather than a romance per se; if it is a romance, it's not one you'd want to breathe in especially.

Haarla and Borisov demonstrate sporadic flickers of chemistry, but I found Compartment much tougher to embrace than its predecessor. The filmmaking here is far more tentative, even sluggish in places; many of these frames are conspicuously (if perhaps accurately) ugly; and some of it sounds pretty ugly, too. It's not Kuosmanen's fault, but I wonder whether Yuri's yobbish outbursts just hit the ear as less forgivable in 2022 than they would have done at Cannes 2021. (Next stops: Bucha and Mariupol.) It's hard to cheer for a film where you don't want the leads to have anything to do with one another after a while, and I'd frankly no idea what Kuosmanen was up come the third act, which consists of Laura and Ljoha clowning around at length in the snow. (Here, Compartment No. 6 suggests a Drive My Car voided of all meaning and substance.) Two films into his career, this filmmaker has established himself as a festival-friendly humanist, one who sees the best in his characters; the question going forward will be whether that in itself is enough to sustain a career. The big test may come when Kuosmanen makes a film set in the here-and-now, at a point when our fellow travellers are more complicated and harder to get on with than ever before.

Compartment No. 6 is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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