Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Posted: December 14, 2013 in Movie Review
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Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Director: Mike Nichols

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret

Everybody loves somebody… sometimes. The rest of the time, many of us manage to do everything possible to ensure that we’ll be entertaining a party of one. It isn’t something we set out to do. The idea of a relationship simply turns out to be something quite different from the reality of intimate pairings. Maybe one desires to get married, while the other just wants to have fun. You could take it back even further. When we are young, men in particular talk to each other about the opposite sex like objects of conquest: “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed!”  Comments like that are harmless enough on their own, but they do reveal an awful lot about the choices that person will likely make in approaching the world of dating. These choices, like any that we make, carry with them great consequences which threaten to shape the remainder of our lives. Selfish attitudes do not bode well for anyone looking for true happiness. The casual approach that places sex above all other priorities is immature and stupid, but that’s life.

Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) are college roomates in the 1940’s. Each man has a different approach when it comes to women. Sandy is passive and shy, the sort of fellow with whom most women enjoy lengthy conversations but have only ever wanted to be friends. He would love to get married, if the right woman happened to show up and take notice of him. Jonathan is more aggressive and used to getting what he wants. The thought of being tied down by marriage terrifies him. Still, he seeks out attention in the form of Susan (Candice Bergen). The complication is that she’s also seeing someone else: Sandy! As intriguing as this love triangle is, the plot becomes more fun to watch once that chapter is abruptly ended. The timeline of “Carnal Knowledge” makes up a span of about 25 years, and in that time Sandy and Jonathan each move from one relationship to the next, never finding the satisfaction that they falsely believed could come so easily. Every other facet of their lives could be in perfect working order, but there would always be something about their women that would add up to a deal-breaker. It is this realization that hits one of the friends harder than the other. This is the real tragedy of “Carnal Knowledge,” that the unfulfilled pursuit of happiness can break the human spirit.

By 1971, the motion picture industry had only just begun producing films of a more sexually explicit nature. At the time, there were parts of the country which were significantly less receptive to the cultural changes that were taking place. In Georgia, the manager of a theater that was screening the movie was arrested and convicted of “distributing obscene material.” That conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. By today’s standards, “Carnal Knowledge” is extremely tame. One wonders what some of the people who took offense to this movie would think of the raunchy sex comedies of today.

Director Mike Nichols has, in more recent years, made a similarly-themed film called “Closer.” Oddly enough, despite my affection for actress Natalie Portman, I still have yet to see that movie. Likewise, I had not seen nor had I even heard of “Carnal Knowledge” until fortuitously stumbling upon it on late night television. The depressing content is worth it for the terrific acting on display. I’m fairly certain I’d never seen Art Garfunkel in anything before, and he’s quite good. He’s outmatched by his co-stars, however. Candice Bergen reminds me why I watched the TV series “Murphy Brown” as a child in the way she is able to take command of a scene. Bergen even holds her own in her scenes with Jack Nicholson, who is easily the best reason to watch any movie he is in, including this one. Nicholson’s best scenes are with Ann-Margret, including one particular shouting match the two get into in their characters’ bedroom. Although the movie is one of depressing subject matter, as is always the case with people who have allowed their lives to be defined by failures of the heart, “Carnal Knowledge” is worth seeking out, particularly for Jack Nicholson fans interested in seeing one of his early efforts that might have skipped your radar. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed!


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