Chronicling the lifelong sexual development of two men who meet and become friends in college.Chronicling the lifelong sexual development of two men who meet and become friends in college.Chronicling the lifelong sexual development of two men who meet and become friends in college.
One would expect the brash and shrewdly confident Jonathan to get a girl first, but it is actually Sandy, who finds and wins the attention of the intelligent Susan (Candice Bergen). Susan is perhaps too strong-willed to be tied down to Sandy, who is sensitive and much too lenient on the opinions of his peers. Eventually, Jonathan sets aside the burgeoning feelings of his friend and begins an affair with Susan himself, which doesn't end gracefully.
Carnal Knowledge spans the next few decades, with Sandy and Jonathan's sexual hang-ups rarely changing. Sandy dreams of the girl who has the brains to match the bust, while Jonathan is so focused on t*ts-and-a*s that a great body is the number one priority, an emotional connection a close second. Sandy ends up marrying Susan; Jonathan has a string of affairs that hits its climax when he meets Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a voluptuous but needy redhead.
The film doesn't preach; it studies. There are some people who are able to decipher the needs of the opposite sex with ease, making for blissful unions that last for years. But then there are the rest of the population, who never really get over the kiss-and-tell days of high school and remain to be too obsessed with sex to start and maintain a meaningful relationship. The film is about that unfortunate crowd.
Carnal Knowledge doesn't have the same punchiness it once did in 1971 — today it feels rather tame — and, in some senses, doesn't go as deep and it could. Movies with miserable characters at its center can often times be so good that we don't get depressed along with them: Mike Nichols, who directed the film, earlier turned the anger of a souring marriage into a glowing black comedy with tragic components in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That film managed to be enormously affecting, but it also didn't make you feel like a pile of sh*t by the end. And in John Cassavetes' Love Streams, the dreary existences of Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) and her brother (Cassavetes) were fleshed with such extraordinary performances that their lives remained interesting long after the film ended.
Carnal Knowledge has the ensemble drama characteristic in which the four main characters — Jonathan, Sandy, Susan, and Bobbie — carve out a net of sexual frustration around each other to the point in which life turns into a prison of dissatisfaction. Their world only revolves around each other. The outsiders, found in the other woman archetypes of Rita Moreno, Cynthia O'Neal, and Carol Kane, act as happy little pills, taking the leading men away from their own banal existences, periodically, only to ground them in reality once again. Nicholson and Garfunkel are terrific, and repositioning Margret from sex goddess status to that of a dramatic figure works quite well.
Many say the film is a dark comedy, but I found no humor in its realm, and I looked in every nook and cranny. Some might find Sandy and Jonathan's failures to be melancholily funny, but, throughout the film, I was hopelessly depressed. Carnal Knowledge's components are spotless, but it forgets to do anything besides tell a story of constant grieving — maybe some can take it, but I certainly can't.
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- May 2, 2015