Director: Juho Kuosmanen (Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany). Year of Release: 2021
Moscow. We’re never told what year we’re in, but people are still using payphones, filming their travels on a camcorder the size of a brick and fixing broken cassettes with a pencil (ask your mum). We’re at one of those posh parties where people ask each other to guess who said a certain quote (the winner is something from Marilyn Monroe). An older woman, Irina, introduces Laura as “my Finnish friend”. Later, the two kiss and we see that they are much more than just friends.
Irina and Laura were supposed to be going to Murmansk to see the petroglyphs (cave paintings to you and me). For whatever reason, Irina is no longer going, so Laura is making the train journey on her own. It will take several days, so she’ll have to sleep in the train. As she finds her carriage, her face drops when she sees Ljoha, a Russian skinhead who looks like a younger Vladimir Putin. Ljoha already has a bottle of spirits open which he starts downing at a suicidal rate.
Ljoha is nationalist, racist, and looks as if he could be physically dangerous. He’s also heading up to the frozen North to get a job in construction. Ljoha suggests that Laura is like the whores who work the mines that he works, and is she just here to sell her <expletive deleted>. After this, she approaches the sullen guard/ticket collector to ask if she can change carriage. No chance, they’re stuck together, day and night, for the next few days.
Laura stays in the buffet car until it closes. By the time she gets back to the carriage, Ljoha is passed out on his seat. She creeps into bed, wearing as many layers of clothing as she can. When the train reaches St Petersburg, she takes her rucksack, determined to return to Irina. But when she rings, her lover (probably already her ex-lover) is distant and eager to move on to something (or someone) more interesting. Laura returns to the train with a defeated look on her face.
The journey continues with a series of incidents. When she feels threatened by a man banging on the phone box, Laura reluctantly accompanies Ljoha to join him in a visit to his foster mother. A Finnish hippie joins the train and, desperate for any other company, Laura invites him to share their carriage. As the hippie continually strums on his guitar, Laura quickly reconsiders her notion that Ljoha is the person with whom she’d least want to share a sleeper van.
So what’s going to happen? Are the middle class idealistic foreign student and the boorish working class drunkard going to find true love? Well, not exactly, but they clearly learn valuable life lessons, #1 being not to make judgments based on your first impressions. The problem is, there’s little in the film to show that the first impressions are wrong. Ljoha may have a nice smile and be ready to help out Laura when she’s in trouble, but he’s not too far from his original macho appearance.
Similarly, while Laura may be a more sympathetic character than Ljoha, who goes to more sophisticated parties, she doesn’t have too much to say for herself. Maybe it’s the nature of the film – if you met a stranger on a train who has little in common with you, would you be able to find much to talk about? Possibly not, but why would anyone thing that this would be dramatically interesting?
This is not to say that Abteil #6 is not without its moments. There are repeated and increasingly tragic scenes of Laura trying to reach Irina on the phone. It either rings indefinitely or is answered abruptly by a woman who would obviously love prefer to be out enjoying herself. But Laura cannot or will not accept what is happening. This gives her a certain pitiful aura.
But to fully be taken in by Abteil #6, you need to accept Ljoha’s transformation from brute to saviour. I just saw nothing in the film to convince me why Laura would or should modify her opinion of him. To be sure, his early appearances are seen through the prism of the foolish belief that working class people (and especially working class men), are inherently uncultured, but it’s not like Ljoha is loveable at any stage of the journey.
So we’re left asking, just what is the point of all this? To its credit, sort of, this is not the sort of love story where an ill-matched couple fall for each other despite the odds. It’s hardly a love story at all. For most of the time, Laura and Ljoha tolerate each other at best. But if it isn’t a love story, what is it? And why should we be bothered that 2 people who would otherwise be never forced to share each other’s company find that while they’re not matched in heaven, it could have been worse?
Lots of this film is good, or at least good enough. It has the feel of a serious film which would like to say something important. You can either bemoan the fact that ultimately it doesn’t say much interesting or celebrate the fact that at least it tries.