Written by: Jules Feiffer
Directed by: Mike Nichols
A character portrait, both epic and intimate, that studies the sexual lives of two men, friends, over the course of the mid to late Twentieth Century, Carnal Knowledge does nothing if not remind us that life in post-war America was a lot dirtier than we're often led to believe. The script by Jules Feiffer, who, though known primarily as a cartoonist, wrote the screenplay for another 1971 study of American moral degradation, Little Murders, feels a little dated by today's standards, especially in its portrayal of college-aged sexual naivete (in this, the age of Superbad), but it touches on enough hard-hitting truths about the now universal character of modern romance to maintain a level of compelling convincibility and absorbing authenticity.
In its assessment of modern romance, Carnal Knowledge seems like a precursor to the films of Woody Allen, despite its lack of flaunted intellectualism or quick-witted hilarity. (The comparison seems especially obvious early on, when big band music of the sort Allen often features plays at a college mixer.) Carnal Knowledge is structured as three era-spanning glimpses into the evolving lives of college roommates Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson, from their university days as two vertices on a love triangle (the other being Candace Bergen) through the various relationships that fill the rest of their lives. Nicholson's the cocky, snaky one—"believe me," he says, in contrast to an assertion from Garfunkel, "looks are everything"—Garfunkel, the timid and impressionable type. Both are on a lifelong quest to find fulfillment in the opposite sex and wind up married, but lacking the capacity for love they can look only for sex, and they find domestication to lead to a lack of sexual fulfillment. "I'm so bored," Garfunkel sighs mid-way through the film, "I'm going out of my mind."
Both Feiffer (Little Murders began off-broadway) and director Mike Nichols came to this project from theater backgrounds, and Carnal Knowledge has a conspicuous theatricality to it, both structurally and formally. The visual patience works, though, in the film's favor, thanks to its sophisticated sense; Nichols never treats the material as a recorded stage play, but he does have a theater man's confidence in the text, as well as in the actors to shoulder the dramatic burden. Often, Nichols has Nicholson and Garfunkel, in conversation, stare directly into the camera, using the theatrical technique of direct address, incidentally forcing the audience, uncomfortably, to alternately identify (probably against their wills) with both leads. Nichols also often allows the camera to linger on a single character, visually (but not aurally) oblivious to the action beyond the frame, underlining the alienation that defines the characters' relationships to each other and the larger society. As Garfunkel cautions Nicholson, "you can't make fucking your life's work."
Nicholson's character overshadows Garfunkel's, becoming the most lucid avatar of psychological corruption in the film. "I want you!" his girlfriend pleads. "I'm taken," he answers, "by me!" Nicholson, as Twentieth Century American male, needs no love nor woman—to him, they are little else than pieces of ass, and as such always wind up only busting his balls. During the opening credits, we overhear Nicholson asking Garfunkel if, he had to choose one, he'd rather be loved or in love. Nicholson offers that he'd take the second, and by the end we know it's because he knows it's not something he could ever actually otherwise feel.