Carnal Knowledge follows the lives of two friends over three decades. Jonathan, played by Jack Nicholson and Sandy, played by Art Garfunkel are presentable, educated and seemingly nice young men but it doesn’t take long for us to discover the truth.
Their sexual exploits reflect their deep insecurities and twisted view of women – Jonathan sees women only as body parts. Sandy is gentler but he’s also naïve and gullible. Jonathan leads. Sandy follows. Carnal Knowledge is a memorable portrait of curdled, cruel masculinity.
The late, great director Mike Nichols was an acute observer of modern manners. Here, he stages scenes that are bleak, bitter, sad and sometimes darkly funny. Jonathan is convinced that the only looks matter. When Sandy describes his relationship, he ruefully says, it’s not glamorous or anything. Both ache for happiness and some sort of human connection but they are hobbled by their own warped sensibilities. In a heart-breaking scene, one of Jonathan’s many girlfriends asks if they should ‘shack up.’ It’s almost impossible for him to say yes to that level of emotional intimacy.
Nichols cast Carnal Knowledge perfectly and elicited marvelous performances from his talented cast. Nicholson is feral and fierce. He is frankly ugly and yet he doesn’t drive you away. I watched with pity. Art Garfunkel makes the perfect foil – mild, soft and somewhere, a little more humane.
The women are equally good – Candice Bergen as the woman they both latch onto in college and Ann-Margret as Jonathan’s wife who must bear his abuse and conflicted affection.
Carnal Knowledge is no longer the shocker it was when it released in 1971 (a theater owner in Georgia was actually convicted of pandering to prurient interest by showing the film - the conviction was overturned by the United States Supreme Court). But the film still has the power to startle with its precise rendering of a certain idea of manhood. You can find the film on DVD.