For anyone who’s ever got drunk on bad schnapps with a stranger, for anyone who’s ever been properly alone in a nowhere-town and spoken to a dial tone just to look like they had something to do, for anyone who’s ever been asked how to say “I love you” in their language and has patiently sounded out the words for “Fuck you” … Juho Kuosmanen’s deeply delightful Cannes competition title “Compartment No. 6” plays less like a film than an incredibly detailed, richly textured memory. And for all the people who’ve never done any of those things, now you have.
A sorta-love story with exactly one kiss meets a kinda-road movie where the road is a railway track. But while the strangers-on-a-train-get-to-know-each-other subgenre has its touchpoint in Richard Linklater’s beloved romance “Before Sunrise,” “Compartment No. 6” rattles to the rhythms of much realer life. It’s the experience that many of us actually had when “Before Sunrise” was what we hoped for, a journey composed less of long deep conversations with attractive Interrailers and more of unwashed hair and the awkwardness of bulky backpacks in narrow corridors, and of the dawning realization that hey-ho, no matter where you go, there you are. Jesse and Celine would never.
Between Moscow and Murmansk, Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish archaeology student at the dwindling end of a love affair with worldly Muscovite Irina (Dinara Drukarova), must share her second-class bunk compartment with tough-looking Russian guy Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov, who also appears in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Competition film “Petrov’s Flu”). First impressions aren’t great: Ljoha, taut and glowering as an energy coil, scatters sparks from his cigarette across the cluttered table and alternates swigs of generic vodka with bites of a sausage the color of a blocked artery. Laura, on a quixotic mission to see some rare petroglyphs (rock paintings) in the Murmansk region, spends much of the first leg of her journey trying unsuccessfully to get away from him. But that changes during one overnight stopover after which, and not because of any particular revelation, they wake up as friends.
Kuosmanen earned his promotion to the Cannes 2021 competition lineup by winning the 2016 Un Certain Regard top prize for “The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Maki.” The unusually lovable sporting biopic delivered both a knockout punch and a butterfly kiss to the well-worn conventions of the boxing drama and floored everyone with its immaculately immersive re-creation of time and place. Here, Kuosmanen, and his genius “Olli Maki” production design collaborator Kari Kankaanpää pull off the same feat, re-creating the retro-by-western-standards milieu of late-’90s Russia so completely that at times you might swear you can smell the images, and feel the cold drafts rattle in through the decrepit carriage doors. It feels less like a re-creation and more like cinematographer J-P Passi was sent back through a wormhole to this precise moment, shooting the past with the technologies of today, and in turn delivering a masterclass in unobtrusive handheld camerawork that quietly cares for its characters without ever glamorizing them.
To do so would do a disservice to the two actors who are each so extraordinary at portraying ordinary. As Ljoha, Borisov buries his soulfulness under a restless, constant physicality — he even seems to sleep tensely. And Haarla, the protagonist, is even more subtle, magnificent in her lank-haired, sensible-sweatered normalcy, her almost palpable insecurity constantly in flux with her quiet self-worth. Separately — for they are lonely individuals — the actors are wonderful in conveying the smallest of changes in chemistry between the characters, and together, there is not a moment of their relationship that you do not believe. Love is supposed to blossom, but theirs is nothing as fragile as a flower; it’s a trainyard weed, scrubby and unlikely, but hardier than the pretty red roses of other people’s affections.
In loosely adapting Rosa Liksom’s novel of the same name, Kuosmanen changed the era from the end of Soviet Russia to a decade later (given away more by a slightly incongruous reference to “Titanic” than by the film’s fab soundtrack, in which Desireless’ euro-banger “Voyage Voyage” becomes the perfect recurring refrain.) But the sense of period is less about a particular year than a particular phase, and with this shift Kuosmanen has cleverly substituted one prelapsarian moment in time for another. With its crystal clear reclamation of that last gasp of analogue — before the digital revolution put a cellphone in every pocket and as a species we lost the ability to ever be truly alone — the humdrum and heartswelling “Compartment No. 6” evokes a powerful nostalgia for a type of loneliness we don’t really have any more, and for the type of love that was its cure.