The Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge is one of the absolute saddest films ever made, and it’s not even a tragedy–technically. Tragedies themselves are so frequently not terribly saddening, because, when the characters reach their fated end, you may cry, but in that moment you achieve catharsis, and from there you can go about your day and forget you watched a movie or read a book a few hours later. I’ve always had mixed feelings for tragedy–the way I see it, once the movie or book or whatever story ends, the characters don’t really exist anymore anyways, so what’s it really matter if a character dies in the penultimate chapter? Sometimes I think tragic endings are just slopped together to give importance to the story, like in A Separate Peace. In Carnal Knowledge, no fictional character dies, and there’s no great moment of catharsis, and so the sadness of the characters will stay with you. It will stay with you too because it is, in effect, your saddness too.
Carnal Knowledge follows two characters Sandy (played by Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (played by Jack Nicholson) from their college days of sharing a dorm together to their more serious relationships during the 50s and 60s and finally tracks them all the way to the present. The two begin as roommates in college who bond over talking about girls, often in lurid detail, and are always on the topic of kiss-and-tell… and then some. The beginning portion of the film is quite interesting because we normally associate the period immediately following the War as wholesome, but here we have two guys scheming to get girls, and not just to ask them to go steady or go to the sock hop together.
One of the earliest shots in the movie shows a street at night in almost complete darkness, then from this darkness comes Susan (played by Candice Bergen, who you might know as Murphy Brown or for her role as Enid in Sex and the City). Having her step out of obscurity into the light creates a truly interesting dream-like or fantasy quality, which I believe may have inspired Laura Dern’s first scene in Blue Velvet. Susan is something of a dream girl, and it’s no surprise that first Sandy goes for her, then later Jonathan.
What’s so interesting about Carnal Knowledge is that the characters of Jonathan and Sandy appear from the very beginning as, symbolically, doubles of each other. You will likely make the assumption that early on Jonathan is the bad one and Sandy the good. Jonathan is boisterous, lewd, crude, manipulative, duplicitous and so on, while Sandy is quiet, reserved, unassuming, shy, and polite. As the film goes on though, you will start wondering just who the bad one is. Yes, Jonathan says a lot of horrible things, and sometimes screams at women in anger, but Sandy, being such a passive-aggressive, seems to me like he’s the more dangerous of the two. Jonathan at least engages with life, even if it’s just to spew invective at it, but Sandy detaches himself and sort of sneers from the sidelines.
Jonathan becomes then not the villain of the story who puts bad thoughts in the hero’s head, like Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Iago from Othello, rather he’s the hero who’s led astray.
The entire cast of Carnal Knowledge consists of seven people, and three of them have hardly any lines. The main actors are Nicholson, Garfunkel, Bergen and Ann Margret. If you’re like me, you did a double take when you found out Ann Margret was in a Mike Nichols drama. Ann Margret’s career mostly revolved around campy roles, like those given to Raquel Welch Jayne Mansfield. I mostly knew Margret from her role in the Grumpy Old Men franchise (two of my favorite films–to read a little about the third movie that was never made, click here) and was surprised to see her here. I was surprised too to find that Nichols got such a good performance out of her. Carol Kane is also in the film (you might recognize her from Annie Hall–remember the scene where Woody obsesses over the JFK conspiracy?).
Mike Nichols also directed Art Garfunkel in his film adaptation of Catch-22 (an underwatched classic if you ask me). In that film, Garfunkel played Nately, a character who is meant to seem naive and innocent, and in Carnal Knowledge, his character starts out like Nately, but Nichols has Garfunkel subvert his own image to produce an interesting film (kind of like how David Hyde Pierce tore apart his Niles image for The Perfect Host). Now I can say that I like Garfunkel more as an actor than a musician (I usually skip his songs on the rare occasions that I listen to Simon and Garfunkel).
The one who steals the show though is Jack Nicholson, and this is one of his best performances. It’s unfortunate though that his performance isn’t that well known because they movie itself isn’t well-known today. I’d argue it’s frank subject matter is what kept the film from becoming a lasting success. I’d go so far as to say that while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an enjoyable film, Carnal Knowledge is better. Nicholson here is allowed to fume and burst and rant and seethe like he’s known for, but it’s a performance that’s very much grounded in reality.
One thing that the film is known for is for its recreation of the past. It’s not a vast, sweeping historical drama with thousands of extras in 50s business suits and old cars driving by. Rather, the past is created in a minimalist way, allowing the film to recreate an era without massing a huge budget. For instance, in the background of the scenes set in the Post-War period, recognizable songs from the Big Band era play on the Wurlitzer. By the end, you can tell it’s the 70s because Jonathan’s apartment is decorated in that futurist style (weirdly shaped funiture, everything is egg-shell white) that was briefly popular around that time. Other scenes look like they didn’t use sets at all, just had actors perform in front of reverse-projections I’m guessing (that’s a process where actors stand in front of a translucent screen while images are projected from behind the screen–similar to today’s blue-screens in effect). I’d recommend people going in for a career in filmmaking watch and study this film for an example of how to do more with less.
The esteemed director Mike Nichols definitely shines here. He’s been directing films for decades, and some of his well known films include Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf, The Graduate, and more recently Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War. He started out directing live theater, and from that background he maintained an ability to focus on his actors and to create engrossing drama. One thing he does here in this movie is pay homage to a lot of the European directors whose works were being imported to America around this time. For example, there’s a handful of scenes where the actors deliver monologues directly into the camera, resembling the style of Ingmar Bergman’s films. In another scene, it shows Ann Margret lying on a bed in much the same pose as Bridget Bardot in the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Contempt.
All in all, there’s a lot of reasons to watch this movie. The only reason I’ll put forward as to why you might not want to watch it is that it’s definitely not one to watch when kids are around, as you probably already assumed from the title alone. There’s never any footage that’s terribly explicit (most of it’s tame by 21st century standards) but throughout most of the film, sex is discussed with complete frankness.
On a side note, Carnal Knowledge was written by Jules Feiffer. He’s mostly known for his contributions to the world of comics. He actually worked alongside comics legend Will Eisner in the 40s I believe. I read Eisner’s recent biography, and in it Feiffer’s described as sort of a wide-eyed hanger-on whom Will Eisner liked for his enthusiasm, but couldn’t find any place for. For a while, he was basically an errand boy for the comic studio, until one day Eisner allowed Feiffer to try his hand at writing. Eisner is said to have exclaimed something about how Feiffer couldn’t draw worth anything but he could certainly write. Write he did. He later made a career around satirical comics published frequently in The New Yorker. He’d become such a celebrity that in the original posters for Carnal Knowledge, Feiffer’s name is listed right next to the actors in big letters.