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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. 

Who would be your perfect companion in a sleeper compartment on a train journey that is going to last days? Chances are it wouldn’t be Vadim (Yuriy Borisov). A skinhead with a feral look to him, he’s boorish, misogynistic, drinks vodka, eats tangerines and sausages and is on his way to a job in the mines. Yet that is who Finnish archeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) is lumbered with as she heads on the 1,205 mile journey from Moscow to Murmansk.

It’s the 90s and Laura is on a trip to see the region’s prehistoric cave paintings, or petroglyphs as she refers to them. Originally, it was supposed to be a trip with her older lover Irina (Dinara Drukarova), but Irina had to cancel and so, armed with a camcorder and a Walkman playing pop songs, Laura braves the Russian rail system with its long stops, its surly conductor, its poorly stocked dining car and compartments you can’t even bribe yourself out of. In Russia, even corruption occasionally lets you down. However, it soon becomes apparent that Vadim is the John Candy to Laura’s Steve Martin and, after her initial shock and understandable avoidance of him, there is actually more to the young man than she originally thought.

Director Joha Kuosmanen’s first film, the boxing comedy The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, showed at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2016 and walked off with first prize. His second is a loose adaptation of Rosa Liksom’s novel – Kuosmanen and his co-writers Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman have shifted the action from the 80s to the 90s, which in Russia looks a lot like the 80s anyway.

The production design by regular collaborator Kari Kankaanpää creates a pre-digital, pre-mobile phones world of thuddy ‘thing’-ness – telephone kiosks and jars of preserves, as well as the train itself, with its packed third class carriage where you can smell the feet, its wonky samovar and the stuffy compartment. It’s all shot by cinematographer J-P Passi with an unobtrusive handheld camera, making the most of the tungsten oranges and drizzle blues coming in through the train windows. What we see of Russia is largely station platforms or weather and, aside from some stopovers, it is mostly seen from the train.

Compartment No. 6 (2021)

Borisov’s Vadim is a restless, jittery young man who hasn’t entirely outgrown boyish pranks. On one stop in a station, the relentlessly smoking Vadim passes the time on the platform trying to karate kick snowballs. But there’s also a wisdom to him. He cuts through bullshit, and when a guitar strumming Finnish backpacker joins them his immediate disdain proves deserving.

Laura, on the other hand, is sensible jumpers and the studied, slightly panicked politeness of the tourist, but she also has her share of naïveté. She seems to be the last person to realize that the reason Irina didn’t come on the trip is that his love for her is on the wane. She’s trying so hard to shape and record her life as a young adult that she is in danger of actually missing it. Haarla tracks her journey brilliantly, from her exasperation at having to brush her teeth without water to her exhilaration of finally getting where she wants to go. Her growing affection for Vadim is based partly on drinking moonshine and partly on realizing a certain kinship.

This isn’t the talkathon romance of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). Vadim and Laura prefer doing stuff: there’s a stopover with a babushka friend of Vadim’s, a lot of booze and a lot of horseplay. As for an erotic charge, the film is actually quite chaste, comprising of one kiss that doesn’t lead to anything. In fact, the real consummation of their relationship is a mad snowball fight in the middle of a blizzard. It’s almost as if they are siblings rather than lovers, and the film’s strength is that it presents that form of relationship as just as precious.

Kuosmanen has created a rich emotional journey and a witty, comic road movie, if a film set on a train can be called such. The humour is rooted in Borisov and Haarla’s note-perfect performances: Vadim’s puzzlement at drinking champagne and not feeling any kick of alcohol, or Laura exasperatedly telling Vadim the Finnish for “I love you” is “fuck you.” Laura and Vadim are a couple you care about and who care about each other because of, rather than despite, their irreconcilable differences. This might not lead to a long term relationship or yearly reunion, but it certainly beats some 10,000 year old petroglyphs.

Further reading

Film of the week: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki finds romance outside the ring

In Finland in the 1960s, a promising young boxer must choose between sporting success and settling down with the woman he loves. In the deft interplay between fighter, coach and girlfriend, this low-key film lands an emotional punch, writes Hannah McGill.

By Hannah McGill

Film of the week: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki finds romance outside the ring

Sight and Sound November 2021

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