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Let's Not Rush: A Love Letter To Trains On Screen
Henry Jordan , April 29th, 2022 09:43

Modern cinema portrays trains as spaces between spaces, a place of fascination for the moving image that culminates with Compartment No 6, finds Henry Jordan

For almost as long as it has existed, cinema has been just as obsessed with trains as sweet TikTok superstar Francis Bourgeois. The capacity for trains to amaze inspired one of the longest running urban legends of the cinematic medium, as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was alleged to have audience members running away from the first screening. When trains returned to the screen though, the audiences returned too, to witness these incredible liminal spaces in cinema. More so than any other form of transport, there is a limitless wonder to trains on screen. They are places for mystery (as shown by the endless adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express), for thrills (from The General to Train to Busan) and they are overwhelmingly places to fall in love. That is where Compartment No. 6 joins the tracks.

The film follows Laura and Ljoha, two travellers to Murmansk forced to share the titular compartment as their train treks across the tundra. The narrative blueprint can be found in Brief Encounter and Before Sunrise, two classics that define (and name) the entire “brief encounter” romance genre. The former uses a train station to foster an illicit affair, whereas it's the latter that Compartment more obviously draws inspiration from. Before opens with Jessie and Celine meeting in a train carriage heading to Vienna, hosting the meeting that makes possible the impossible night (and impossible life) they are about to share. Both explicitly highlight the train as the principal location for establishing impossible romantic connections, yet there is one crucial difference between these two films and Compartment. Aside from a few scenes bookending the film and moments stopped at stations, the romance of Compartment blossoms not in train stations or in the cities where these stations are found, but in the train itself. Trains have been understood as perfectly impossible spaces for romance before, but never celebrated in the way Compartment does. It creates the perfect space for a romance that is all but inevitable.

However, what should be an inevitable romance is immediately thrown into doubt. Laura is travelling after her relationship with her girlfriend has been thrown into question, so the last thing she is looking for is a romantic escape. Ljoha is hardly the most courteous companion, leaving scraps of food and empty spirit bottles scattered around the compartment to which he also adds disgusting conversation. And yet, they are stuck together. All the other compartments are booked, the other stops are in the middle of nowhere and, really, both have nowhere better to be than Murmansk. Along with the compartment and some bottles of vodka, they also share that loneliness. Laura is running from a broken relationship, Ljoha delivers a series of stories about pasts he may be escaping and yet, despite both travelling for work, there is a sense that the two are travelling only to be travelling. The destination is irrelevant, because both of them are located nowhere.

Many of the films I’ve mentioned are adapted from novels, including Compartment No. 6, proving that stories about trains aren’t quite complete while they exist solely on the page. Rosa Liksom’s novel contains the structure the film would go on to use, but alienates its readers from the characters in a third-person narration that largely refers to the characters without names. Wisely, Compartment screenwriters Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman and writer/director Juho Kusomanen put the characters in focus for the film. In allowing Laura to emerge as the main character, finally bestowed a name, audiences are given an emotional entry point. Through her, we first fear Ljoha, then begrudgingly find ourselves charmed and by the end, we potentially love him. The train journey is of course important, but only if we care about the characters, which Kusomanen’s adaptation achieves.

Compartment uses this train as a place of voluntary confinement. Though they lack the explicit destinations of the mode of transportation, cinemas and trains alike allow audiences to stay somewhere outside of the world, even if just for a moment. In these spaces outside of space, we have the peace needed to reflect on our lives.Though we use trains to physically move us from one place to another, they, like the cinema, offer a liminal moment during which we can process our inner worlds.

Crucial to its adoration of the space between spaces, Compartment No. 6 sets its final shot in the back of a taxi. This final moment being one of movement away from the destination only reinforces how crucial the liminal spaces offered by travel are to the romance of the film. In the novel, Ljoha says, “Many a citizen has rushed ahead only to end up waiting in some awful place, so let’s not rush”, a statement which acts as the thesis for the film. Our two characters will arrive at their destination, which may well be a place just as dissatisfying as their point of departure. So in this compartment instead, they will wait and enjoy their world between worlds.