Carnal Knowledge – Mike Nichols, Screenplay: Jules Feiffer (1971)


Carnal Knowledge is about sex. No, actually, that’s not entirely right. Carnal Knowledge is really about sex without relationships, and sex without eroticism—these are the subjects of Jules Feiffer’s screenplay, and all that the four main characters, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret, ever interact over. In 1971, when the newly liberated cinema was reveling in idyllic coital and near-coital interludes, Carnal Knowledge was an incredibly daring, prophetic, successful and controversial film, no mean feat when one considers that both A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs were in release that same year. Those movies stirred widespread debate about violence, but Mike Nichols hit closer to home with Carnal Knowledge. It upset people about their lives, loves, and lovers—women hated it and Carnal Knowledge made men more defensive about sexuality than any movie in memory.The movie’s success was reminiscent of Nichols’ The Graduate, on a more sophisticated level. Indeed, Carnal Knowledge owed something to the earlier film—Jules Feiffer’s script seemed to draw from a single, haunting nuance of The Graduate’s final scene: Ben and Elaine, united and riding off together, their expressions suffused with agonizing loneliness and doubt. If The Graduate encapsulated the sexual ethos of the 1960s, Carnal Knowledge was a film for the 1970s, the rude awakening following sexual awakening. In place of Ben Braddock, Carnal Knowledge gives us Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), two Amherst students from the 1940s, whose sexual exploits and ineptitudes mask deeper problems: Jonathan’s inability to relate to women as anything other than sex objects, and Sandy’s incapability of relating to women on anything other than an intellectual level. Into their midst comes Susan (Candice Bergen), a coed who fulfills their limited but ferocious sexual needs and eventually marries Sandy. Twenty years go by, and Sandy is divorced, while Jonathan marries Bobbie (Ann-Margret), an actress whose sole attraction for him is physical. … The action is depicted almost entirely in tight and medium shots, but also makes use of some very sophisticated sound and visual edits, overlapping dialogue and picture from adjoining sections in a manner reminiscent of the best moments of The Graduate. In his first major film following his rise to stardom in the relatively modestly conceived Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson gives a ferocious performance as the sexually obsessed, erotically vapid Jonathan, seeking out, using, and casting aside his sexual partners with an abandon that anticipates his devil in The Witches of Eastwick and his Joker in Batman. Art Garfunkel’s affecting performance as Sandy was one of the movie’s most unexpected virtues. …”
Criterion
W – Carnal Knowledge
amazon
YouTube: Carnal Knowledge 1971 Trailer, from “Carnal Knowledge” – Jonathan and Susan, “I’m an act.”

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