Philippe de Broca began his directing career in the early 1960s with a trio of enchanting romantic comedies -- "The Love Game," "The Joker" and "The Five-Day Lover." An exceptional young actor, Jean-Pierre Cassel, starred in all three, protraying carefree charmers whose cozy arrangements with women were upset as the feelings of one party or the other underwent a change.
Watching De Broca and screenwriter Michel Audiard belabor a slight, mocking, middle-age variation on this premise in "Practice Makes Perfect," opening today at the Outer Circle, I wondered if Cassel's presence might have improved matters. Conceivable but doubtful.
Jean Rockefort stars as the complacent, philandering protagonist of "Practice," a concert pianist named Edouard Choiseul who presumes too much on the affection and loyalty of the numerous women in his life. The most entertaining aspect of the movie is De Broca's crisp, humorous orchestration of the social frenzy and congrestion in which Edouard operates.
The original French title was "Le Cavaleur," and Edouard does suggest a kind of over-age runaway. When appetite and impulse tempt him toward fresh sources of gratification, he forgets previous engagements and betrays old vows. Overbooked domestically, professionally and erotically, Edouard attempts to juggle appointments, obligations and loved ones. We make his acquaintance shortly before the whole teetery structure is destined to come tumbling down, leaving its self-centered creator alone and bewildered.
His first wife, Lucienne, played by Annie Girardot, has remarried, but Edouard persists in acting as if her life is arranged for his convenience. He's also openly contemptuous of her second husband, Jean Desailly, as a dependable businessman who obviously represents everthing lacking in predecessor.
"I often wonder why we got divorced," Edouard says to Lucienne in a nostalgic moment. She remembers it well. Referring to the mistress who became his second wife, Lucienne replies, "We got divorced because Marie-France was six months pregnant."
Edouard has a teen-age daughter by his first marriage and three younger daughters by his second marriage. Once the little homewrecker, Marie-France (played by Nicole Garcia) has matured into a justifiable suspicious spouse. Edouard is dallying with a new mistress, Murielle, a naive cutie embodied by Catherine Alric, the Catherine Deneuve-lookalike who made an attractive debut in De Broca's "Dear Detective."
Edouard also has a female business manager, played by Lila Kedrova, whose much-abused professional loyalty is strained to the breaking point. At a private concert Edouard becomes infatuated with a girl about the age of his eldest daughter. She turns out to be the granddaughter of an old flame, played by Danielle Darrieux, looking wonderful 30 years after "The Earrings of Madame de . . ." Despite this potentially therapeutic shock, Edouard seems intent on sacrificing everything for a fling with the youngster. eBut he's simply upstaged by the women he's been taking for granted: They spoil his fun by walking out first.
Edouard's behavior seems unforgivably caddish. If there's a redeeming aspect to his advanced case of sexual opportunism or his identity as a prominent artist, it remains insignificant. When he is left absurdly abandoned, deprived of both company and furnishings, the movie might as well end. All the calculations suggest that his comeuppance is the logical, fitting conclusion.
Rochefort's customary wolfish charm deserts him on this occasion. Perhaps Edouard has his reasons, but one doubts if they'd inspire outrageous merriment, let alone respect. One never feels a sneaky, disreputable attraction to this particular Don Juan.
Having set up their character for a decisive fall, the filmmakers appear patronizing when they suggest, as an afterthought, that he might be a sympathetic wretch after all. This equivocation recalls the game-playing of "Kramer vs. Kramer," where the runaway wife never had a respectable dramatic excuse for taking off but the filmmakers seemed to congratulate themselves for being ever so understanding about her dereliction.
Rochefort has become a more distinctive and engaging comic actor than Cassel in recent years. After his delightful contributions to "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "Salut I'Artiste" (a supporting performance that seemed to cancel out the lead, Marcello Mastroianni), "Pardon Mon Affaire," Femmes Fatales" and "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" (in which he and Cassel were feuding chefs), it comes as a letdown to see Rochefort fail to shine in a starring vehicle.In his defense, the shallow and selfish role of Edouard may be luster-proof.