A dark and strange exploration of male sexuality, Carnal Knowledge sprang from the bitter pen of playwright/satirist Jules Feiffer, with the sophisticated social observer Mike Nichols serving as director. The story begins in the ’50s, when college roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) fumble their way through early sexual encounters with coeds. Jonathan’s an unapologetic horndog who soothes his insecurities through physical conquest, and, at least in his early days, Sandy is a romantic trying to balance libidinous urges with respect for women. The boys form a triangle with worldly coed Susan (Candice Bergen), who is drawn to Sandy’s sweetness but can’t resist Jonathan’s confidence. After this triangle runs its painful course, the movie skips forward and eventually lands in late-’60s New York City.
Jonathan, who has grown into a deeply angry adult, gets involved with Bobbie (Ann-Margret), an older woman whose va-va-voom figure drives him wild. Unfortunately for him, she comes complete with emotional needs that he’s incapable of meeting, so their romance devolves into a regular schedule of screeching arguments. Meanwhile, Sandy becomes a seeker of sorts, bouncing from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next, and Jonathan makes wildly inappropriate passes at Sandy’s girlfriends.
Much of the picture’s nonstop dialogue is sharp, capturing the extremes of emotionally crippled individuals. In one harrowing moment, for instance, Jonathan screams to Bobbie, “For God’s sake, I’d almost marry you if you’d leave me!” Nonetheless, the wall-to-wall dysfunction is a bit much. Since Feiffer and Nichols populate the movie exclusively with characters who are horrible or weak, if not both, their implied statement about the inability of men and women to coexist seems arch, forced, and unpersuasive. It’s also unclear whether Carnal Knowledge is meant to be drama or satire—is watching these sad people destroy each other supposed to be funny?
Nonetheless, the film garnered considerable praise during its initial release, with Ann-Margret winning a Golden Globe and Feiffer earning a Writers Guild Award nomination. Furthermore, the film’s craftsmanship is impeccable. Nichols employs a restrained visual style, putting the focus on potent acting. The four lead actors are quite good, with Ann-Margret surpassing the low expectations established by her long string of shallow sex-kitten roles prior to this movie. Bergen conveys an alluring brand of icy intelligence, while ’60s pop icon Garfunkel, giving his first major dramatic performance, presents a unique sort of natural twitchiness. As for Nicholson, he’s hamstrung by a severe characterization, since Jonathan is more a compendium of compulsions than a genuine individual. Nicholson’s performance is creepily intense, but not realistic.
Carnal Knowledge: FUNKY