July 2011

The French art of seduction

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In one of the most hilarious and poignant scenes in his classic comedy Annie Hall, Woody Allen brilliantly depicts the art of seduction. One afternoon after a tennis match, Annie (Diane Keaton) invites Alvy (Allen) back to her apartment for a drink; standing on her terrace, the two range over a number of topics even as subtitles flash across the bottom of the screen depicting each character’s real thoughts. As much as they might desire each other’s bodies, they crave the pleasure that intellectual foreplay nourishes. In addition, when these two cease to desire each other and seek mere physical gratification, the relationship ends.

As Elaine Sciolino, the Paris correspondent for the New York Times, so vividly reveals in her alluring and irresistible exploration of plaisir (blandly translated into English as “pleasure”), seduction in France does not always involve body contact.

As we come to learn in La Seduction, seduction in France encompasses a grand mosaic of meanings; what is constant is the intent: to attract or influence, to win over, even if just in fun. With a slow passionate burn, she explores the early history of the idea of seduction, teaching us that intellectual foreplay, the allure of the flesh and the temptation of scent all artfully enhance the pleasure of playing political, economic or sexual games. For the French, if an individual seduces with a delicious meal and a glass of excellent wine, a promise of romance, an intoxicating scent and a lively game of words, then he or she has led you to a place where you can find freedom to enjoy and savor the best that life has to offer.

Drawing on interviews with politicians, artists, philosophers and men and women from all walks of life, as well as her deeply charming and absorbing readings of French film and literature, Sciolino captivates us with scenes of seduction played out in political offices, butcher shops and sidewalk cafes. Her perhaps most memorable line—“I had never had a gastronomic orgasm before I met Guy Savoy”—reminds us of the power of food to seduce. In France, she observes, food is consistently presented as a source of pleasure, and gustatory pleasure is so close to amatory delight that the lines may sometimes blur.

Sciolino’s charming tales of the French art of seduction will entertain and delight readers, and instruct us in how best to embrace life’s joys and celebrate every moment of our lives and loves.

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