Downbeat, infuriating, reluctant to give up its mystery and illogical and anticlimactic by its finale, “Compartment No. 6” parks us in a Russian train for a long journey from Moscow to Murmansk with two intriguingly mismatched traveling companions.
It might be dismissed as one of those Cannes Award winners destined to be forgotten not long after the fizz on the champagne has bubbled out. But grasping for meaning in its unsettling, occasionally comic and always cryptic “relationship” can be an interesting thought exercise.
At a vague point in time after “Titanic” and before Putin, a just-jilted gay college student and a hatefully boorish and drunken Russian mine-worker get off on the wrong foot and yet must endure one another for days of infuriating, fraught and occasionally comical interactions as they rumble north in the late Russian winter.
Chainsmoking, aggressive and bottle-emptying Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) seems somewhere far down the obnoxious/dangerous spectrum. He’s bad enough that I wondered for a few minutes if he wasn’t going to wind up dead with the Finnish woman — who I never heard called “Laura” (Seidi Haarla) — as the suspect.
He is that insistently awful. She is that anxious to get out of there, change compartments, go down a class in accommodations or even exit the train.
But there is no going back to Moscow, where she’s been studying at the university, destined to be just another “houseguest” of the charming, sophisticated and sexy older academic Irina (Dinara Drukarova).
Loutish Ljoha staggers into the sitting/sleeping berth, fills a glass out of a fresh bottle, and instantly misreads the situation, starting in with scores of questions. Whatever she’s doing, documenting the trip to see “the petroglyphs” (ancient stone carvings) outside of the Arctic Ocean seaport of Murmansk by camcorder, collecting her thoughts or reading, he is a Russian male in his cups and will not be ignored.
“You look so serious all the time,” he says (in Russian with subtitles). “You’ll get old too soon...wrinkles.”
He’s hitting on her. She isn’t having it. And he won’t stop. Her Russian isn’t entirely fluent, but when she finally lets him engage, she gives rude, obscene mistranslations for his inane “How do you say?” queries about Finnish.
North American viewers might be puzzled that she’d engage with him at all. But director and co-writer Juho Kuosmanen, adapting a novel by his fellow Finn Rosa Liksom, forces us into her shoes — a gay foreign woman trapped in this situation, with no lifeline from the rude Russian porter, rude waiters in the dining car or instantly-moved-on lover back in Moscow.
“You think I’m a bad guy?”
“I only know what I see.”
It’s probably a mistake to read too much into the geopolitical metaphor that seems all the more obvious since Russia invaded Ukraine, which happened a year after “Compartment No. 6” was the toast of a pandemic-depleted Cannes, almost two years after it was made.
But Russia has always been Russia, even with that ’90s interlude when the world hoped it might outgrow its belligerent, vodka-soaked adolescence. And Finland’s relationship with the Bear next door has always been perilous.
Even that, coupled with a scorned woman’s softening to the abrasive “any port in a storm” jerk she’s been thrown together with, is a hard sell. I never bought that, gritted my teeth at every fresh rapprochement and took on a little extra concern for this young woman giving anything like encouragement to the bully she’s clearly paired up with.
As others are stuffed into the compartment for this or that leg of the journey, does he really seem less toxic by comparison? Even the incessant guitar-playing of a clingy, instantly-over-familiar Finnish tourist feels like a welcome respite.
Still, the stark, grey ugliness of just-post-Soviet Russia is immersive, and the grace notes — friendly mechanics offering a bottle, a slowly-softening porter, a near heroic effort to help Laura complete her quest (treated as an anticlimax) — give us something to cling to in “Compartment No. 6.”
No, Cannes didn’t discover the “new Aki Kaurismäki” (“Leningrad Cowboys Go America”) with this film. But Kuosmanen hopefully has an entire career ahead of him to make this Cannes-honored fluke a mere stepping stone to acclaim he might eventually deserve.
Rating: R for language and some sexual references
Cast: Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov
Credits: Directed by Juho Kuosmanen, scripted by Andris Feldmanis and Juho Kuosmanen, loosely based on a novel by Rosa Liksom. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:47