Carnal Knowledge offers a spicy, very 1970s take on the war between the sexes.Made in 1971, the film begins two decades earlier - where we first meet college room-mates and frustrated virgins Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Arthur Garfunkel, of Simon and Garfunkel fame). Sandy’s the outwardly shy and sensitive one, and soon begins courting Susan (Candice Bergen). Jonathan has a passionate affair with Susan behind Sandy’s back. Over the coming years, we hear the conversations both men have about women, and then see them put their views in action - from affairs, abuse and attempts at wife-swapping to Jonathan’s slide show featuring all the “ball-breakers” he’s ever met.
It’s great to see Nicholson early in his career, generally keeping the scenery-chewing under control. Even the blander Garfunkel holds his own. The achievement of both leads is making the exploits of these men watchable. They’re helped by a strong female supporting cast, of whom the doe-eyed Candice Bergen is weakest. Ann-Margret received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her washed-up, weak-willed ex-model, and Rita Moreno (West Side Story) also leaves a strong impression.
As with most of Mike Nichols’ work (The Graduate, Silkwood, Working Girl, Primary Colors), the film boasts an accomplished cast and a very contemporary feel. Unfortunately, it’s not very evenly paced or balanced between the two male leads - Sandy and Susan fade into the background halfway through (Susan never returns to the screen), and we focus on the sexually disfunctional Jonathan. I wanted to see more of Sandy by way of comparison, and how these men engaged with women in their workplaces.This is an engaging character study. Although it’s told completely through the men’s eyes, Nichols’ film also demonstrates the effect of feminism on the American mainstream of the early 1970s.