.Vodka Breath: Despite everything, ‘Compartment No. 6’ sneaks up on Russian romance

Planning a vacation in Russia anytime soon? Probably not. In any case, consider the story of a young Finnish woman studying archaeology there, who decides to explore the country in the middle of winter by taking a solo train trip to the Arctic port of Murmansk. That high-concept mini-synopsis could describe the opening for a spy thriller, a horror pic or a grim war movie in which the innocent foreigner ends up dead, crushed under a tank. But filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature has something a little less obvious, and certainly ultimately more charming, on its mind.

Compartment No. 6 opens with Laura (Finnish TV actor Seidi Haarla) at a party in the Moscow flat she shares with her Russian lover, Irina (Dinara Drukarova). The gathering resembles a typical stateside college faculty get together—intellectual name-dropping, lots of alcohol and some good-natured apprehension about Laura’s imminent trip north to visit the 10,000-year-old rock carvings known as the Murmansk petroglyphs. Luckily for her, Laura is fluent in Russian. For some reason, director Kuosmanen—adapting Rosa Liksom’s novel with writers Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, plus Russian-language dialogue by Ljuba Mulmenko—takes care to show us that the action takes place sometime in the 1980s—Roxy Music on the soundtrack, videotape camera, etc. It’s also established that Irina isn’t going on the trip with Laura.

What 24-hour Russian train-ride scenario would be complete without a surly, thuggish travel companion? No sooner does the scar-faced, scowling skinhead Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) plop down across from Laura in a cloud of cigarette smoke and vodka breath, then he inquires why it is that she’s traveling alone. Is she a prostitute? He follows up with this witticism: “All humans should be killed.” The similarly boorish female conductor offers no help when Laura complains. When Laura returns to the compartment she discovers a child and his mother in her bed. More vodka. The other cars are crowded with working stiffs like Ljoha, all with beaten-down facial expressions. The restrooms, too, are suitably depressing. It’s going to be a long ride to Murmansk. Anybody for independent travel in the real Russia?

It should surprise no one that sometime in the middle of all this, Laura and Ljoha will fall in love—they just don’t know it yet. Meanwhile, there’s a stopover in St. Petersburg; a phone call to Irina, she does not miss Laura; an adventure in the dining car, they’re out of everything; some haphazard chit chat, Ljoha is a miner looking for work; and more vodka.

Laura overcomes her frustrations and slowly warms up to her new traveling companion. There’s pretty much nothing else to do. On another stop somewhere outside Petrozavodsk, Ljoha drives the reluctant Laura to a cabin in the snowy boondocks where a babushka named Natalia (Julia Aug) treats them to her theories about redheads in Ireland, plus some homemade vodka. Back on the train a tall Finn with a guitar drops by. He’s so insipid he makes Laura miss Ljoha.

Compartment No. 6 operates according to the principle that waiters who have to be bribed to serve passengers their meals, useless information bureaus—“It’s not available. Come back in the summer”—lost luggage, all the little disasters travelers face, are the very type of things that make a trip to an unfamiliar place so memorable. The lousy weather. The dreary landscape. The unexpected.

It further occurs to us that if this unassuming Old World romantic road trip were to be remade in America, Laura and Ljoha would probably be played by, say, Margaret Qualley and Tom Holland. Their meet-cute would take place while seated across the aisle from each other on a flight to Coachella, and when the plot thickens they’d be sent to Qikiqtagruk, Alaska, to search for gold. So let’s enjoy the “quaint European” point of view while we can. Who really needs any more vodka?

In theaters March 11.
East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition