Undoubtedly the funniest part of ‘Red Sparrow’, the film where Jennifer Lawrence portrays a special type of covert "honey trap" known as a sparrow, is when 72-year-old Charlotte Rampling appears as the teacher of the world’s most fucked-up sex-ed class. Employed to train a group of Russian hotties in the fine art of the blow job and getting undressed on command, Rampling introduces herself to J.Law’s coerced spy by saying, “You will know me as Matron." When the Russian government gives her a politician they need dirt on, Matron can figure out exactly which kink they should leverage for access, and she trains her hard-bodied spies to go out there and do her bidding. J.Law later laments, “You sent me to whore school!” in an unconvincing Russian accent.
If that sounds hilariously odd, the reality is slightly more grim. Growing numbers of Russian women are flocking to "bitch schools" that purport to provide a competitive edge in a dwindling market of suitable bachelors, or provide those already in relationships with the skills to bring their men to heel. Run by Vladimir Rakovsky, a motivational speaker and extremely creepy dude, and his wife Yevgenia, they teach "bitchology" - the belief that women need not be strident nor sassy, but demure, manipulative and aware of their own sexuality in order to get their own way.
Graduate from there and it's off to the “school of seduction”, a class in which the women learn to attract the most discerning of men by flaunting their sexuality, like how to surreptitiously rub one's breasts against an unsuspecting subject or give a man a lap dance.
While Russia's attitude to gender equality may seem baffling to many Westerners, it's easier to understand in the context of its history. In Soviet times, when sexism officially did not exist, women ploughed fields and work in factories. Today, Russian men remain deeply patriarchal and still expect women to be subservient, while many young women would prefer to shop or dine out. If their men can fund such a lifestyle, equality appears to be a sacrifice worth making.
In Alina Rudnitskaya’s documentary 'School of Seduction - Three Stories From Russia' (her previous short doco, ‘Bitch Academy’, acts as a prologue) we follow three Russian women - Diana, Lida and Vica - who are all 30-ish and searching of security, a higher social status and simple happiness. This isn't an easy task in post-communistic Russia, where an extremely patriarchal culture is ruling, the general perception of being happy equals wealth, women outnumber the male population in outright numbers, and Vladmir Putin is seen as the epitome of male virility.
The three women take matters into hand and enroll in “the school of seduction”, where they learn how to live, think and behave in order to be loved under the guidance and manhandling of the overweight, unsettling Radovsky. Rudnitskaya, a Russian woman herself, follows her protagonists for seven years, emerging with some remarkable footage of their development and struggles. The director uses aerial shots of the city to show off some its more brutal, ugly architecture, enhancing the crushing feeling of oppression.
Lida lives with her mother under poor conditions and is dating a married man. She goes to the training and listens to what her coach says. "Men don’t want women who have issues, tell him that you can’t live without him," Rakovsky instructs, before advising her to cry a little too. She follows his advice and pressures her lover. One year later they marry, four years later she has a small child, Polina. Lida has become a housewife who seems to spend most of her time in the kitchen of a tiny apartment, with a husband who travels a lot and she suspects is having another affair. Her high heels are now only used by Polina, who loves to walk around in them, foreshadowing the continuation of a cycle.
The three women take matters into hand and enroll in “the school of seduction”, where they learn how to live, think and behave in order to be loved, under the guidance and manhandling of the overweight, unsettling Vladimir Radovsky.
Vika is married to Denis, with whom she runs a lingerie shop in a commercial centre in Dostojevski. She is young and relatively affluent but not in love with her older husband. She goes to a psychologist and then visits Rakovsky, who throws her around and gyrates against her aggressively. Weirdly, she seems to enjoy it. Vika eventually leaves her husband, but is still reliant on him for a job and her apartment. Vika’s mother advises her to meet a new man by going to funerals and then establishing a relationship with the widower.
Diana is the poorest and most striking documentary subject. We meet her chatting up men in bars and, in a quieter moment, canoodling with a nice young man. It is here that she declares determinedly that there are three things that are important for her: an apartment (she lives with her mentally ill grandmother and Sasha, her young son), money and a relationship. The young man is clearly intimidated.
The film jumps six years ahead, where she and the precocious Sasha live with an older Italian guy, who teaches at the university where she works. We see the three going to luxurious Hotel Astoria for an international cocktail party and afterwards, hear her complaining that she does not have the best dress. No longer going to the scuzzy “school of seduction”, she now attends an academy for poise, manners, etiquette and the correct way to eat a lobster (they also encourage students to dress up like Princess Grace of Monaco for a photo shoot). She goes to Monte Carlo to be near the rich and the casino. Her son films her and says, “The girl tries to be elegant but nature does not allow it.” Diana has hustled hard to transform her life from poverty to comfort, but still has an insatiable desire for wealth and status, seemingly programmed into her by Russian society.
'School of Seduction - Three Stories From Russia' is a jaw-dropping look at one of the many new businesses designed to help women get ahead in Russia's post-communist, new capitalist marriage market. At a time where political and cultural reactionary movements are fast-growing all over the world, this documentary feels very relevant.