Carnal Knowledge (a look back)

Carnal Knowledge was a risqué film in 1971, not for what it showed, as much as what it discussed. Male sexual attitudes and intimacy in relationships. Frank and revealing. Louie B. Mayer was probably spinning in his grave.

Talk of sex is one thing, but how the male ego and self-worth are defined and added by sexual conquest are frightening subjects. In 1971, this film was dynamite and culturally divisive. Archie Bunker famously thought the film was about the Catholic religion: Cardinal Knowledge.

The film is not about love, that’s a foreign concept in this story. The sexual revolution came without an instruction manual, but the goal of young men was carnal knowledge, or sexual intercourse.

College roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are to be lifelong friends, who pursue sex, but approach it somewhat differently. Jonathan will pursue anything he finds appealing, even his friend’s women. Secretly, Jonathan goes after Sandy’s girlfriend (Candice Bergen) Susan, and supposedly falls in love with her. Jonathan is jealous of Sandy, even though he has the most adventurous sex with her. Sandy and Susan have an emotional connection that Jonathan envies and wants. He prefers to keep seeing Susan and risk his friendship with Sandy, trying to force her to make a choice, and select him. The ugliness and unfaithfulness of Jonathan is revealed early in the film, and Nicholson was born to play this character. Charismatic and domineering, Jonathan naturally becomes a successful attorney, whose appetite for conquest knows no limit. Garfunkel plays Sandy as sweet, and envious of Jonathan’s skill of getting women into bed. Sandy does not have Jonathan’s bravado, he’s more practical, and becomes a physician.

Sandy and Susan eventually marry, as the film jumps forward in time. Jonathan keeps moving from relationship to relationship, unable to find his perfect woman. Both still talk about their lives and their sexual satisfaction. Sandy is settled into the normal, but unexciting middle class life. Bergen walks a fine line with Susan, an intelligent and independent thinking woman, but who falls under Jonathan’s spell. She does one-up Jonathan by finding happiness with Sandy, while Jonathan quietly carries his jealousy.

Jonathan meets Bobbie (Ann-Margret) a sexy and beautiful woman. The physical part of their relationship is hot. Jonathan jokes that it was so good that he almost has an orgasm. It’s more truth than a joke, but they laugh. Ann-Margret is powerful in this role as Bobbie initially holds the power in the relationship, but falls victim to Jonathan’s inability to make a commitment and his unfaithfulness.

Jonathan always showers after sex. Bobbie is becoming attached and wants to live together. He wants to make sure she doesn’t mistake moving in with getting married. He wants her to quit working, but he’s making no commitment to her, even though she hopes it will trigger marriage and kids. End of discussion. He takes a shower.

Bobbie stops working, but neither of them are happy. Their love life suffers. Their relationship grows cold. She starts drinking to self-medicate and longs to marry. He fears intimacy, and uses her weight gain, drinking, spending and depression against her – yet, he created the miserable person she has become. He wonders why she stays.

Meanwhile, Sandy and Susan have a normal life together, doing all the right things, but going through the motions. Sandy starts seeing another woman, and his marriage ends. In a short time, Sandy is bored with his new partner, but Jonathan is intrigued. Jonathan suggests they swap partners. After a nasty fight with Jonathan, Bobbie overdoses. Sandy finds her and saves her life. Jonathan freaks out.

The story skips ahead. Jonathan and Bobbie have married and divorced. He is angry at Bobbie, in part because he married her out of guilt. She’s a ball-buster, the type of woman he hates, and fears. He lives alone and has left a trail of women who have disappointed him. Meanwhile, Sandy has finally found love and possibly a soulmate. This upsets Jonathan.

The film ends with Jonathan seeing a prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno), a regular appointment. She is more of a psychologist than a sex worker. It’s a small, but fascinating role for Moreno. She almost hypnotizes him to arouse him, boosting his damaged male ego. That’s the sad reality of Jonathan’s life.

Sandy and Jonathan are misogynistic characters, objectifying women based on their physical attractiveness (breast size, butt and legs) and submissiveness. They move from relationship to relationship, searching for that illusive key to happiness. In the end, neither of them seem any closer.

The film was written by Jules Feiffer (cartoonist, satirist, poet) and directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate). As one might expect, controversy greeted the film. It made money but was no blockbuster. In Georgia, the film was seized by local authorities and the theater manager arrest and convicted for distributing obscene materials. The case went to the United States Supreme Court and the conviction was overturned. Fifty years later, I’m uncertain whether the Court would reach that same conclusion.

Nichols’ direction of Carnal Knowledge is masterful. His main job was to not get in the way of the material and the incredible acting. That’s a simplified answer because Nichols skillfully highlights key points in many scenes by focusing on reactions and underlying emotional threads while other action and dialogue takes place.

By today’s standards, this film is still bold and insightful, and carries a frankness that can make well-adjusted adults squirm. Cinema used to have an incredible power to tell stories through ideas and characters, without being obvious and graphic. This film is a great example of that power.

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