Saturday 29 August 2020

Movie Review: Carnal Knowledge (1971)

A drama about the various sexual adventures of two friends over many years, Carnal Knowledge plugs into the post-free love 1960s era to explore the consequent opportunities and disillusionments. 

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (singer Arthur Garfunkel) are best friends entering college, and obsessed with women and sex. Jonathan is selfish, judges women by their looks, seeks the thrill of the chase and has no desire to settle down. Sandy is more sensitive and interested in finding and falling in love with a soul mate. After a tentative start Sandy makes progress with fellow college student Susan (Candice Bergen), but Jonathan swoops in and starts to also date Susan on the side.

Years later the men are professionals and Sandy is married to Susan, although the passion has seeped out of the relationship. Jonathan is very much single and for his next conquest pursues part-time actress Bobbie (Ann-Margret), who has the dream shapely figure he has always coveted. Fuelled by sex their relationship peaks early and starts a slow descent, Bobbie craving the long-term commitment that Jonathan is not interested in. Meanwhile Sandy moves on from Susan, and starts a relationship with Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal).

Fairly shocking for its era due to a singular obsession with frank discussions about sexual desires, Carnal Knowledge helped usher in brazen and turbulent on-screen depictions of sex and lust among adults. Written by cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, the film features plenty of profanity, scenes of frollicking and lovemaking, and some risque nudity, as the evolving male perspective on sexual relationships gets a rigorous test.

As far as content and plot, Carnal Knowledge has a one-track mind and gets bogged down in prolonged talky scenes more suitable for the stage. The focus on Jonathan and Sandy is tight, the women in their orbit often unceremoniously dumped as the men move on. In a few scenes the emotions run high and tempers boil over, Nicholson and Ann-Margret engaging in an exhausting shout fest as their union circles the drain.

Nichols enlivens the dialogue with innovative camera work, the background and foreground often equally important, the talking sometimes occurring off-screen and the passive but interested listeners given prominence.

Carnal Knowledge continued Jack Nicholson's rise to prominence as one of the most exciting and edgy talents in Hollywood. Brash and fully aware of his narcissism, Nicholson portrays Jonathan as an emotional risk methodically shunning opportunities for his own happiness. In one his rare movie outings Garfunkel is not bad, but definitely overshadowed. 

With plenty of bravura oscillating from the highs of sexual fulfillment to the lows of depression, Ann-Margret matches Nicholson is one of her best career performances. Carol Kane and Rita Moreno arrive late with telling contributions, Moreno leaving a searing impression as the only remaining destination once burnout edges out titillation.

Sexual adventurism veering far away from monogamy carries a buzz, but at a cost. Carnal Knowledge meanders to the place where selfishness folds in on itself, what was once easy pleasure now in need of sordid mind tricks and expert but passionless help.

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