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“Looks Are Everything” — Carnal Knowledge

December 22, 2008

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
d. Mike Nichols 

Daring for its time, and still somewhat disarming today, Carnal Knowledge deals with the heightened reality of two men and the relationships they forge with women over several years. The movie opens with a voice-over dialogue between best friends Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) that lays down their basic philosophies. They both would rather love someone than be loved; Jonathan especially believes that both states are exclusive to one another and not mutual.

Domestic Bliss

Domestic Bliss

This philosophy is put to the test when Sandy starts seeing Susan (Candice Bergen) during college. Jonathan steers their relationship until Sandy confesses to a hand-job from the virginal Susan; this act motivates Jonathan to see Susan behind Sandy’s back seeking the thrill and turn-on that occurs when his perception of Susan changes. Ultimately, as Sandy falls in love with Susan, you get the sense that Jonathan is jealous of this and wants to feel love as well; he starts giving ultimatums to Susan, constantly badgering her about how she treats Sandy different from how he is treated — this alone gives Jonathan away.

In a telling scene, we get the tenor of her relationship with both Jonathan and Sandy as Nichols intercuts her dancing with Art and its very measured and paced, while dancing with Jack is faster with more cuts and she is having more fun. The climax of the scene has Mike Nichols locking the camera off on Candice, seated between Jack and Art (both off-screen), while she busts a gut laughing, having the time of her life with both of them.

“Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear”

“Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear”

Jump to several years later, Sandy has married Susan but the fire has gone out of their relationship. Jonathan sets him up with the competitive Cindy, but he still feels bored.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has been sleeping around and finally hooks up with an actress, Bobbi (Ann-Margret); his constant judgement of perfection based on breast-size and other physical attributes means that his relationship with her can only go so far. When she expresses the desire for marriage and children, Jonathan’s response, more often than not is to take a shower. There should be a drinking game based on how often we see Jack in the shower, entering the shower, starting a shower, or ending a shower. There’s definitely a sense of Jonathan’s guilty feelings and need to wipe those away.

In a particular scene, Jonathan suggests to Sandy they swap partners — Bobbi for Cindy. The results are unexpected, neither party getting what they want and this motivates another jump in time. Sandy has finally found someone to love (Carol Kane), while Jonathan still struggles with dissatisfying relationships.

Ultimately, the movie, scripted by Jules Feiffer, deals with honest and rawness people’s relationships of the time. The language is frank and disarming but feels true even if it is well-scripted. Nichols directs with confidence and stages scenes expertly. The performances by Nicholson, Garfunkel, Bergen and Ann-Margret are amazing and fresh.

I highly recommend this film. *** stars.

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