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Fellow Travelers

Sami Kuokkanen/Sony Pictures Classics

Compartment No. 6 (2022)

Finland’s entry in the Academy Awards’ International Feature Film category, “Compartment No. 6” tells a deliberately heart-warming story, of an extremely unlikely friendship, that’s patronizing and inadvertently offensive.

During a gathering inside a Moscow apartment, Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finn, appears visibly out of place as her partner, Irina (Dinara Drukarova), pays her no attention and continues to mingle and engage in vapid badinage. Laura soon boards a train to Murmansk alone, after Irina bails on their travel plans at the last minute. She then has the displeasure of sharing a roomette with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a drunkard who wastes no time in sexually harassing her. After a failed attempt at changing her room assignment, she has no choice but to tolerate his obnoxious presence.

With the train stationed in Petrozavodsk overnight, he invites her along for an excursion and, inexplicably, she joins him. After they return to the train, she, much to his annoyance, comes to the aid of fellow Finn Saska (Tomi Alatalo) who is trying to surmount the language barrier. Laura, like us viewers, automatically feels a false sense of security with Saska because of presumptions and biases associated with the Nordic identity, so screenwriters Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman and Juho Kuosmanen (who also directs) devise a gotcha moment to show that Ljoha is the good guy after all despite his early assholery. That’s fine. It challenges stereotypes even if it reeks of manipulation.

What’s not fine is that Laura eventually initiates physical intimacy with Ljoha. The film’s logic is that she’s in an emotionally vulnerable state and he’s the only one there for her, because Irina can’t even bother to muster up any excitement when Laura calls. Of course it’s entirely possible that she is bisexual. Still, hasn’t Mr. Kuosmanen learned the inherent offensiveness of depicting such sexual fluidity after Kevin Smith made this mistake in 1997 with “Chasing Amy?” “Blue is the Warmest Color” only went on to prove in 2013 the toxicity of this plot device.

Thankfully, this ain’t “Before Sunrise,” either. They go their separate ways upon disembarking in Murmansk, after he shows little interest in exchanging tokens or keeping in touch. Only then does Laura learn her trip is poorly planned, and that the petroglyphs she has come all the way from Moscow to see are off season. She tracks down Ljoha at the mine he works at, and he helps make her trip worthwhile. It’s a pretty slight payoff. So what’s the real lesson here? Don’t write off that drunk guy who sexually harasses you?


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