"Carnal Knowledge" is one of those films that has gained a reputation over the years. It's infamous for being at the center of a major obscenity case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately deemed its contents not obscene. Offering multiple instances of nudity, simulated sex, several four-letter words, and plenty of very frank discussion of sex and sexuality, "Carnal Knowledge" was simply too much for many audiences in 1971 to handle.
Nearly half a century later, social mores are very different, and there's no longer much about the movie that's very shocking. There's still content that's a little distasteful, and plenty that still touches a nerve. As the title and the controversy suggest, "Carnal Knowledge" is all about sex, specifically the attitudes of a pair of men, Sandy (Art Garfunkle) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson), toward sex and the various women in their lives over a period of fifteen years. The first part of the film deals with their relationships with Susan (Candice Bergen), who dates Sandy and cheats with Jonathan. The second part follows Jonathan's relationship with a woman named Bobbie (Ann-Margret) several years later.
We first hear our leads talking over the title credits as a pair of young college students, eagerly discussing what they're looking for in the opposite sex. Jonathan's interest is strictly physical while Sandy has more high-minded ideas. Their language is often crude, demeaning, and misogynistic, especially on Jonathan's part. He calls his exes "ballbusters," and the older he gets, the more he has, and the more bitter he becomes toward women in general. The movie understands that Jonathan is a lout, and his awful attitudes are what cause him so much misery in his relationships. However, it's still rare to see any kind of media address this head on, and portray a man like Jonathan so candidly.
The performances are a big part of why the movie is so effective. Jack Nicholson does some of his best work as Jonathan, somehow remaining sympathetic even after betraying Sandy, and treating every woman he meets terribly. He shouts and menaces, but his insecurity is apparent in every frame, and in the end his worst victim is himself. Art Garfunkel's nebbishy Sandy stands in for the average schlub, whose romantic idealism seems to point toward happiness, but then finds himself beaten down by domesticity and monogamy. There's a priceless monologue where he clinically relays the state of his moribund marital sex life that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic.
And what of the women of "Carnal Knowledge"? More prurient viewers will cherish being able to see Candice Bergen and Ann-Marget in various states of undress. However, as the POV stays with the men, we only learn a little about their partners. Ann-Marget's Bobbie comes off as the most well-rounded, a sweet woman who initially seems to be Jonathan's perfect match, but grows increasingly dissatisfied and listless within the relationship. Bergen does a lot with a very abbreviated part. Carol Kane and Cynthia O'Neal play other romantic interests, and then there's Rita Moreno, who appears in a single, chilling scene as the representation of what Jonathan actually wants in a woman.
In the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, "Carnal Knowledge" feels more timely than ever as it explores the ins and outs of toxic masculinity, skewering the self-delusion and vanities of its two hapless protagonists. There have been other films that have similarly mocked such immature attitudes toward sex and relationships, but rarely have they been so biting, or relayed in such frankly sexual terms. And it's so fitting that director Mike Nichols is the one who brought this to the screen, having also helmed "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "The Graduate," with "Closer" still waiting in the future.
It's fascinating that Americans still don't like to talk about sex, or see it onscreen in anything other than a titillating fashion. A film like "Carnal Knowledge" probably has less of a chance of being made today, even though the audience has long been desensitized to expletives and partial nudity. Those who seek it out now for its racier content may end up getting far more than they bargained for.