A miniature black sheepdog darts through Paris' fashionable Bois de Boulogne among other coiffed pooches. The man at the end of the retractable leash approaches a Catherine Deneuve look-alike attached to a poodle.
"Madame Fifi?" he splutters, taking cues from another woman nearby. "Perhaps you could help me and my dog adapt to Paris life -- we've just moved here."
Cut to a crowded Paris cafe. Another guy, a schlump in his mid-30s, has been eyeing the woman at the next table but hasn't dared talk to her. On cue from a half-hidden figure seated behind, the man stutters, "Pardonez-moi, I know this sounds strange, but there's something really interesting on the back page of your newspaper and ..."
At an upscale boutique on the Rue Saint Honori, a 40-ish character dressed like Marcello Mastroianni steps in bearing a single perfect white rose. "Your eyes are so beautiful I wanted to thank you," he sings, handing her his card. "Next time I'm in Paris, can I take you to lunch?"
What do these corny pickup scenes have in common? Vironique Jullien, founder of Paris' first and only School of Seduction. She and her crack team of Italian and Latin American "seduction coaches" lead luckless French lovers into the field for just such hands-on sessions. Dogs in parks, newspapers in cafes and roses in boutiques are three of the hokey tricks Jullien uses to nudge tongue-tied Parisian Romeos to besiege the femme fatale of their dreams.
"It's not a technique," says Emmanuele, a 25-year-old white-collar worker and enthusiastic graduate of Jullien's school. "You learn to develop your innate ability to seduce people, and Vironique helps you to bring that out -- she had me join a theater company to learn to act, and now I'm engaged."
Judging by her success, Jullien must be more than a mere monger of egregious platitudes and soft-porn hokey-dokey. Her school opened in 1995 and the concept has attracted American backers. A knockoff Vironique Jullien Seduction School may be coming soon to a town near you, probably in Silicon Valley. Negotiations are also underway in Singapore. And the press has been falling all over her: CBS, NBC and the Discovery Channel have shown up in the past month for interviews, not to mention the main French and Italian newspapers. Why?
Simple: No one can believe Parisian men need to be taught how to seduce women. What has become of the Jean-Paul Belmondos, the Jean Gabins, the Alain Delons of this sex-steeped country, where every ad campaign seems to feature burgeoning crotches and topless sex bombs?
"Frenchmen aren't seducers the way they were up to the mid-1980s," Jullien tells me in rapid-fire French, flailing her arms for emphasis. "The relationship between men and women began to go downhill starting then. The reason is 50 years of feminist revolution -- at a certain point it had to backfire. We've become victims of the war we've waged."
Tall, muscular and in her 40s, Jullien is an ex-Club Med staff member, a former sales team manager and business consultant, matchmaking agency director and dancer/cabaret artiste. She has an imposing presence, a permanently bronzed alpha-female look, with large mobile features, big brown eyes, vast quantities of hair, lavish gestures and cannon-shot exclamations. Her body language and speech are pushy-randy, verging at times on raunchy.
In my 15 years in Paris I have encountered French women like her, though none wearing, as she is, a loose white shift paired with red basketball shoes. Her mane is crowned by a pair of sunglasses, despite the fact that we're inside an office building. Most of the Parisian alpha females I know sport Chanel suits and flirt outrageously with executives who come to cut a deal with them, perhaps before leaping into the sack.
High-strung and meteoric, Jullien moves in her small Opira-neighborhood office like a Puerto Rican dancer in "West Side Story." (It's one of her favorite musicals, she tells me.) She plucks the sunglasses off her Medusa curls, twirls them, drops them on her cluttered desk by her shrilling cellular phone, replaces them, scratches at her stress-martyred hands.
"Seventy percent of my clients are men," she reports. "30 percent women." Almost all the women, it turns out, come on the pretext of wanting to master communications skills. But in a country with a 33 percent divorce rate, where adultery is the national pastime, most of them really want to learn how to keep the men they have.
"Between you and me," she says, "we French women are spoiled. We've got full rights, we can have an abortion, we can take the pill, we can cheat on our husband -- no one busts your ass anymore if you commit adultery, and it sure wasn't like that once upon a time. We work, we're independent. I just don't understand why we complain."
The main problem with Frenchmen, it seems, and therefore the raison d'jtre of Jullien's school, is the very power French women now wield, women who have no time for families, love or courtship.
Jullien's men -- mostly 30-to-50-year-old engineers, computer programmers, business executives or other professionals -- can't handle these superwomen, don't know how to communicate with them and have come to fear them. Jullien's school is the Last Chance Saloon for those who've already been to shrinks, singles clubs and matchmakers. (There are 1,500 matrimonial agencies in France today.) These men spend $1,000 to $2,200 for two to nine months of learning from Jullien how to overcome their fears -- of rejection, ridicule, psychic castration.
"For a while there, I wasn't exactly cuddly with men myself," she says, fixing me with a serrated gaze. "I was one of those castratrices. Yes, we are ball cutters, but Frenchmen have become pretty wimpy, too, pretty weak. It's like, 'We were victims, now the men are victims, everyone gets his turn.' But that's not going to fix anyone's problems."
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I cross and recross my thighs uncomfortably and can't help thinking of Italy. A similar set of problems -- increasing social mobility, waning family values, the greater independence of women -- arose at about the same time in the heartland of the Latin lover. Ten years ago I reported on Italy's first seduction school, run by Giuseppe Cirillo, aka the Prince of Seduction, a Neapolitan lawyer turned psychologist-sexologist.
Starting in the late 1980s Italian males were suddenly faced with liberated females chanting the slogan "Bread but also roses," a baffling refrain that helped spawn countless then-unheard-of lonely hearts clubs, as well as Cirillo's seduction school. The colorful Cirillo method, as I experienced it, involved individual and group activities ranging from the banal -- matching facial expressions with Cirillo's "75 primary emotions," gauging "gait and body language," using "voice modulation, eye and hand techniques" -- to the outlandish.
Not only did I engage in thigh-to-thigh role-playing (in one session I had to explain my way out of being caught sleeping with my girlfriend's best friend), I was also introduced to Cirillo's secret weapon, the "tavola delle esclusioni," a painted wood silhouette of a woman with strategically placed slots at head, shoulder and waist level. Out went the lights; in came a female presence. After sliding the silhouette's panels back and forth, allowing us to see the mystery woman's eyes, lips or waistline, Cirillo ordered us to step up one at a time and knead and stroke her. This was an extravagantly embarrassing episode, though my fellow students, some of whom hadn't been inside a flesh-and-blood woman in years, went pink with pleasure.
Being both French (i.e., tending to constipation) and a woman, Jullien has nothing remotely like Cirillo's ingenious contraption, and when I tell her about it she goes ballistic. "He must have a bunch of basket cases as clients, guys in death throes, morbidly shy guys," she machine-guns. "I have normal guys."
As proof she shows me a few photographs and explains her methodology. The first thing she does when she meets you is conduct a frank interview. Then she gives you a questionnaire and sends it to a clinical psychologist.
After you've been profiled, Jullien, working with the shrink, devises a personal course of instruction. It might include everything from role-playing to field trips (pickup practice in clubs, cafes, parks) to lambada dance classes to appointments with a sexologist. "Some of my clients are virgins," she admits. "Others say they don't know how to put on a condom."
Typically, the beginning of a course is a sartorial and hygienic remake. She shows me before-and-after photos of a client transformed from a hopeless guy -- mismatched tie and shirt, baggy outdoorsy pants, unkempt hair -- to a snazzy hunk. The remade dude is wearing a gray suit and dark turtleneck. His hair is raked back. She calls the makeover a "re-lookage," a wonderful bit of Franglais. "I often use Alain Delon as an example of how to dress," she explains, telling me she believes that clothes make the man. "He's a successful role model. You might or might not like him, but he's not your run-of-the-mill actor, and he did it himself, so it means you can transform a man. When you work at it, when you have the will to change yourself, you can."
Cirillo may have his silhouette, but Jullien has two secret weapons of her own. Unwittingly, I've been smelling one all along and now realize the feral odor and snorting sounds I've been hearing emanate from a miniature black Belgian sheepdog. Parisians are dog-obsessed. Jullien lends her pet to clients so they can pick up dog-owning ladies.
The second weapon comes in the form of field trips to one of Cirillo's stomping grounds: Rome. Jullien met her husband there, she tells me, an Italian who picked her up in a cafe. This explains why she is convinced that Cirillo's clients are total basket cases. Just as I can't believe Parisians need her, she can't believe Romans need Cirillo.
"I take a bunch of Parisian men, we fly to Rome, we go to the center of town, and I and my women helpers are the bait," she says. "We sit at a cafe and demonstrate how Roman men pick us up. We get all dolled up, we sit down, with our clients nearby, and then we wait. And I assure you we don't wait long. Go sit at a Paris cafe -- and unless you're wearing a miniskirt pulled up to your panties, you can wait two hours before a guy will even talk to you."
So, leaving aside Cirillo's basket cases, the secret of being a great lover is to be Italian? I can just imagine the Bill Gates look-alikes at Jullien's future Silicon Valley campus exchanging their pen protectors for La "Dolce Vita" suits, worn boldly to help cyber Don Giovannis shark in on single gals slurping smoothies at the local strip mall.
"I'm not going to teach American men to pick women up like Roman men," she protests. "The essential thing is to be likable in the first seconds when approaching someone." Besides, she adds, seduction techniques are universal -- the winning smile, the bouquet of flowers, the self-confident yet sensitive charm. "Any man who knows how to pick up women, wherever he goes -- to a museum, an antique shop, a boutique, in the street, in a park -- will succeed anywhere in the world with any kind of woman, a German, a Dane, whatever ... Forget the intellectual psychology stuff -- a woman is a woman. She's got tits, an ass; we've all got 'em. A woman needs to be made to dream, to use her imagination."
It's obvious why Jullien's savvy imagination has been captured by California, a mother lode of dot-com nerds, luckless Bobos and geeks surrounded by post-feminist castratrices with pruning sheers, fat wallets and dating contracts. ("You shall not touch me until I specifically request you to do so ...") But is she qualified? She has traveled to, though she has never lived in, California. She speaks fluently flawed English with Parisian panache and demonstrates an original understanding of American culture.
"My impression," she confides, "is Americans don't know how to flirt. There isn't a single American who knows how to flirt, and I mean the mating dance, the seduction dance -- they don't know how to do it. They don't have good table manners, either. I'm not saying all Americans are like that -- some aren't of course -- but the guys in Silicon Valley, in front of their computers all day, they barely know how to hold a fork. American guys can be jokesters, bons vivants, and suddenly they reach out and grab your ass and say, 'I want to fuck you' or whatever. They're capable of behaving like real hicks. Whereas the bourgeois American guy is calmer, more puritanical."
Tits, asses and the urge to screw may be universal but, wisely, Jullien plans to surround herself with Americans conversant with the country's hick-puritanical heritage.
As I left her office and met one of her cringing clients, I came up with a quick crib of the Jullien method, in three easy steps: 1) If you're a man, have Roman-gene-implant therapy, memorize the script of "La Dolce Vita" and get a Mastroianni "re-lookage." 2) If you're a woman, fly to Rome and nurse your latte there. 3) If the first two don't work, buy a dog.
And don't bother coming to Paris. No matter what Jullien does, the women are viragoes, the men wimps.