Two Anherst College students in the late nineteen-forties like to dwell on their favourite subject, and that is the opposite sex. But Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are bluffing, for they don't really know anything much about women, all they do know is they want to have sex and as soon as possible. But how can they persuade the right girl to agree? Step forward Susan (Candice Bergen) who they meet at a mixer; Sandy gets to talking with her as Jonathan looks on, and they strike up a connection: if only Susan knew what it actually was that they both wanted from her...
Well, she'll find out soon enough in director Mike Nichols' adaptation of cartoonist Jules Feiffer's script, a collaboration which was a minor sensation in its day for its frank talk about sex and its supposed exposure of what men were truly like when it came to their opinions of women. Jonathan and Sandy are the only male characters in this, and with no other men to contrast with them at first you're not sure if the film is on their side or pulling back from their obnoxiousness to take a withering look at their foibles. By the end, you're in little doubt that they are pathetic creatures whose pursuit of women for sex rather than love has corrupted them.
But then, maybe the female characters are not exactly depicted as wholly exemplary either: every one of them Jonathan eventually describes as "ball-busters" but Feiffer offered them all the air of victimhood, as if they were not much better then the two leads for their willingness to go along with these men's manipulation. We can sort of excuse Susan because she is wheedled into sleeping with them both, losing her virginity to Jonathan when she was ostensibly Sandy's girlfriend (and not enjoying the exeprience judging by the expression on her face), so she is naive from the start in spite of her intellectualism, but what of Ann-Margret's Bobbie, who Jonathan moves in with?
If any of them are a victim it's her, and if anything she's even more useless than the men, so no matter how well acted this was - and it was very well acted indeed - the sense that the filmmakers were pissing on these characters from a great height never left it. This is what turns so many off Carnal Knowledge, that sharp but condescending tone, as if it was more comfortable dissecting its subjects' minds than considering there might be an alternative. Were they condemning every masculine ego who needs a woman to make him feel better, not because she makes him happy but because they need to dominate somebody? You could observe Sandy is dominated by Jonathan down the years we see them, and ponder if he might have been a better person if he'd never got close to him.
You can recognise why this became such a talking point, and also how it quickly became passé when the works that followed, from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Neil LaBute's whole act, took such navel-gazing about as far as it could go, so much so that it was a wonder any man was able to talk to any woman ever again without them becoming deeply suspicious of one another, if you went along with how relationships were illustrated here, at any rate. What this really came down to, the reason to watch it today, were the skilful performances: the swearing and nudity from established stars were something new at the time, but trendsetting in that audiences may be interested in seeing further from the stars who arrived afterwards now the grounds had been established. So if that novelty is not as shocking as it was back in 1971, you can well understand why even those who rejected the movie were impressed by the actors' dedication, if not Nichols' exacting, even gimmicky, direction.
German-born director in America who was part of a successful comedy act with Elaine May. He then turned to theatre and film, directing sharply observed dramas and comedies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22 and the controversial Carnal Knowledge.
After the flop Day of the Dolphin, his output became patchier, but The Fortune, Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge, Wolf and Charlie Wilson's War all have their merits. On television, he directed the award-winning miniseries Angels in America.