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November 22, 2013

Carnal Knowledge

by Franz Patrick


Carnal Knowledge (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are roommates and best friends in Amherst College. They enjoy talking about women, what they like and do not like about them, and the prospect of making love to them. Jonathan spots beautiful Susan (Candice Bergen) slinking across the room. He urges Sandy that he should come over and talk to her. Who knows? He might even get lucky. Although Sandy is not an especially good-looking guy, Susan adores his sensitivity and likes the fact that she is able to talk to him about anything. Jonathan judges his friend’s lack of his experience with jealousy.

“Carnal Knowledge” holds a critical eye on men’s needs. When their requirements are not met, insecurities tend to destroy them from within. The picture shows that although Jonathan and Sandy are opposite in personalities and there is variation in their approaches to interacting with the opposite sex, both have a hunger for being with as many women as possible. The film does not judge them negatively for wanting to experiment. Instead, it observes the characters in absolute curiosity.

The screenplay treats Jonathan and Sandy’s sexual needs as natural. The material is more interested in showing us the men’s inability to recognize happiness and the possibility that it can arrive at their doorsteps in different forms. Because they are too preoccupied with looking for the chance of acquiring something better instead of treasuring and maintaining what they already have, as they age so do their insecurities.

Although Jonathan and Sandy are able to sustain their friendship for many years, they essentially have the same problems and fail to recognize the issues. As a part of the audience, we are forced to wonder if their very close friendship, realistically portrayed, will be able to continue to endure the weight their self-consciousness. And yet, equally interesting, there are times when the friendship, open to interpretation as to whether it is a healthy one, is touching and amusing.

There is sadness in the way Sandy is able to openly communicate to his best mate that marriage requires living a life without glamour but it is almost worth it because there is convenience in the routine. Garfunkel delivers his lines without irony so Sandy sounds like a man who is tired of being limited by a social union but at the same time one who has learned to take comfort in it. Meanwhile, Jonathan confesses that he has begun having trouble with getting an erection. It is amusing not because of his erectile dysfunction but because he has so many deeper problems worth talking about yet the topic he chooses to share is not being able to get it up. Again, there is a disconnect in their relationship.

Written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, “Carnal Knowledge” provides an incisive portrait of men’s expectations, sexual needs, and fixations. When the intense and cathartic screaming matches finally arrive, as the ones between Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), it is like being in a room with the couple with no door or window escape from and no furniture to hide behind.

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