Strangers on a Russian Train

A sleeper car in the Arctic, before the war

Strangers meeting on a train has long been a familiar premise in movies, including all versions of Murder on the Orient Express, the Bollywood-set When We Met, and, of course, the classic Hitchcock film that no one will ever top. But in his sophomore feature, Compartment No.6, Juho Kuosmanen takes us on a ride to equally unexpected places.

Working with a script by Livia Ulman and Andrias Feldmanis, as well as stunning European locations (most notably Russia), Kuosmanen directs this simple yet resonant story about a woman who finds amorous warmth amidst a cold, punishing landscape.

Laura just wants to be alone. In an opening scene that briefly addresses her emotional state before the trip, she finds out that her partner Irena (Dinara Drukarova) will no longer be joining her, because she doesn’t feel like it. Hurt and confused, she questions what made Irena change her mind? Was it something she said? Could they be breaking up? Without any leads, Laura heads to the city of Murmansk on her own–sheltered from the blizzard, cut-off from the world.

When she meets Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), with whom she will be sharing a sleeping car for the nearly two-day journey, he seems determined to scare her away: he drinks too much, eats too loud, assumes she’s a prostitute and grabs her skirt. Laura asks the train conductor if she can change compartments, but she replies with the disdain of a Russian politician. “You think you have a choice?”

What ensues in Compartment No. 6–which is closer to Snowpiercer than Before Sunrise–is a cold, wry and heartfelt portrait of two icicles melting in the heat of the moment. Laura’s outer shell begins to crack, and it’s not surprising in the least that she develops a connection with Ljoha, a miner from out of town. She starts to warm to his crude demeanor, and the two begin a tentative, unpredictable relationship. How they will click is never clear; you just know that they will.

Kuosmanen’s aesthetic is lyrical and haunting, using a graceful handheld camera and natural light. His grasp of storytelling is both intimate and intense, using quiet and wordless moments to demonstrate unspoken emotions and unique connections, whether that’s Ljoha playing in the snow or an almost magical pas de deux between Ljoha and Laura over dinner. A moment where she hugs Irina is mirrored when she hugs him, reminding us yet again of her changing sympathies.

By knowing where railway romances usually wind up, Kuosmanen is able to steer our expectations in all sorts of directions. His perspective on the genre is crucial for this reason; he’s also in league with a new generation of filmmakers using trains and their passengers to explore new terrain, twists, meanings and archetypes. We’ve seen people fall in love on trains before, but never like this.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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