Directed By: Mike Nichols
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret
Trivia: Writer Jules Feiffer originally pitched the concept to director Mike Nichols as a theatre project. After listening to Feiffer's ideas, Nichols said, "I see it as a movie."
Released in 1971, Carnal Knowledge proved to be a very controversial film. Attacked as ‘obscene’ by a number of groups, several of the film's exhibitors were even arrested and brought to trial on charges of public indecency. As is the case with many such “moral crusades”, those who attacked Carnal Knowledge never bothered to look beyond the surface, condemning the film for what it showed while ignoring what it was trying to say. Far from glamorizing promiscuous sexuality, Carnal Knowledge actually attacks that very lifestyle, relating with extraordinary skill the tale of a man torn apart by his inability to connect with women on any level other than a physical one.
Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are college roommates, and spend a lot of time talking about woman. While they agree on many things, when it comes to actual matters of the heart, Jonathan and Sandy couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is extremely confident, and doesn’t hesitate in going after as many women as he possibly can, while Sandy is shy and uneasy in the company of the opposite sex. Spurred on by Jonathan, Sandy musters up the courage to talk with Susan (Candice Bergen), whom he spots one night across the room at a campus party. With this as a starting point, Carnal Knowledge follows the two friends as they experience a variety of relationships over the course of the next 20 years
Far from the rallying cry of free love the moral pundits professed it to be, Carnal Knowledge is, in fact, the tale of one man’s descent into the dark recesses of his own sexuality. Jonathan can easily attract women, yet fails to relate to any of them on an emotional level. As Sandy’s romance with Susan blossoms, he fills Jonathan in on all the details, including the intimate conversations they engage in, but it isn’t until Sandy reveals the details of their first sexual encounter that Jonathan finds he’s also attracted to Susan, and begins pursuing her for himself. Before long, Susan is dating both men, and having sex with each one as well. Sandy, who knows nothing of Susan and Jonathan’s relationship, continues telling Jonathan about how well he and Susan get along, leaving Jonathan perplexed. He can’t understand why Sandy and Susan are sharing so much, whereas he and Susan have found nothing in common aside from the sex. Jonathan longs to connect with Susan on a deeper level, yet is unable to do so.
The Supreme Court would eventually rule that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene, with Justice William Rehnquist delivering the unanimous decision that “(The Court’s) own viewing of the film satisfies us that Carnal Knowledge could not be found…to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”. I absolutely agree with them. The sexuality depicted in Carnal Knowledge is far from offensive, and farther still from sensual.
If anything, I’d say it’s downright destructive.