Carnal Knowledge Review

It's a simple question that requires arguably one of the most complex answers: Is it better to be in love, or be loved?. Two young buddies Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) jokingly ask each other this question during their first youthful outings with women, and spend their whole lives finding the answer.

The two young men couldn't be more opposite if they tried. Sandy is the atypical sweet-natured 'faithful' boyfriend type who manages to woo the attractive Susan (Candice Bergen) using the lure of his innocence and naivete. Jonathan on the other hand, oozes an almost satanic charisma, and finds it difficult to let himself become tied down to one woman. The contrasting personalities of these two friends are further exemplified when Jonathan casually engages in a fling on the side with Susan, with Sandy unaware. However, Carnal Knowledge isn't concerned with the success and failure of Jonathan and Sandy's relationships over the years, but more concerned with testing out it's initial hypothesis.

Carnal Knowledge is a brilliant example of how a film can be extremely simplistic in terms of plot events and yet utterly compelling if handled correctly. Director Mike Nichols, who earned an Oscar for the masterpiece of sixties cinema The Graduate, gives the impression that dramatic touch he grants the film is effortless, and entirely smooth and free-flowing without a trace of calculation. It's the type of film in which the acting has to be top notch, and fortunately Nichols is one of the best actors' directors around, and his casting of Nicholson is a masterstroke. Nicholson, a forever-smiling inner-beast of smouldering cool, gives one of his finest, most underrated performances. You could argue that Jack has in his later years almost stepped into the Jonathan persona full-time outside of the movie screen, and this actually helps the audience to buy into his character. Jonathan is the opposite of The Graduate's Ben Braddock, in that he is the master of women as opposed to the servant. Art Garfunkel, at the time one of the world's most famous pop singers (he'd just recently parted company with Paul Simon after the monumental Bridge Over Troubled Waters LP) is surprisingly a very capable actor. Garfunkel is clearly not intimidated by Nicholson, and the two share a fantastic screen chemistry. The delicious Ann-Margret was Oscar nominated for her turn as Bobbie, the beautiful yet rejected lover of Jonathan, and she exhibits both a light, child-like nature and a dark, adult exterior that seems forever in conflict both in her own mind and with Jonathan. The sequence in which Jonathan tries to wriggle out of moving in with Bobbie is so deftly handled by director Nichols, since he manages to express the complete range of Bobbie's emotions through the use of a single close-up. Indeed, his fixed close-ups, on The Graduate are now text-book.

There isn't a single performer in the film that doesn't do themselves credit. Candice Bergen is well cast as Susan, the respectable girlfriend of Sandy tempted to the dark side by Jonathan. Cynthia O'Neal is obnoxious and smarmy as Cindy, and Rita Morena briefly guests in the final sequence and manages to steal the scene as Louise.

Carnal Knowledge was frank and daring for its first release in 1971. The swearing and candid sexual banter shorted a few people's circuits originally, but the film is tame compared to today's standards. In all honesty, the film isn't actually about sex at all, but a dark and bitter study of how man treats (or mistreats) both his best friends and the women that love him. It's the sort of film that would be hard to cope with were it not so funny, and Nichols is so confident with the Jules Feiffer screenplay that he is capable of extracting laughs from deadly serious events. The cinematography is deliberately non-intrusive; the characters are the film's focus and nothing else, and both Nichols and his director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno understand this fully. Some feminists have wrongly cited the film as chauvinistic towards women, when they should in fact be directing the criticisms towards the two male characters of the film, who deliberately are used to represent the ignorance of men who saw women as playthings or housewives.

Because the film harbours an ambiguous conclusion and contains little of terms of sex or action, many will simply be underwhelmed by it. However, Carnal Knowledge is actually an under-appreciated masterpiece of adult sexual politics and anxieties, and is one of the slickest dramatic directorial efforts of the early seventies. You can almost imagine Art singing Old Friends / Bookends as the film fades out.

Academy Awards 1971

Academy Award Nominations 19731
Best Supporting Actress - Ann-Margret

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, Momentum have done a sterling job in giving the film a fresh and colourful transfer, that fully complements the film and is relatively speckle free other than a few digital artefacts in some of the darker scenes. The widescreen original aspect ratio quickly puts to shame the pan-and-scan VHS copies of the film and TV broadcasts, and is the only way the film should be viewed.

Presented in the original mono track, the sound is well defined and recorded at a decent volume, but is obviously uninspiring considering the film is mostly dialogue based.

Menu: A very good animated menu, showing how elements of the film can be imaginatively pulled together to produce a fine product. Also comes with background score.

Packaging: The film maintains the original cover artwork and still has room to throw in Momentum's new Take One budget range, which is providing a host of underrated films at £9.99.


Original Theatrical Trailer: An interesting and concise original trailer that lasts for merely forty five seconds and provides enough snippets of information without giving any major plot details away.


A brilliant film dealing entertainingly with the dark 'invisible' sexual war between men and women, and man's own attitudes to those closest to him, Carnal Knowledge is given a good DVD presentation with bare-bones extra treatment. However, considering it forms part of Momentum's Take One budget range, how can you argue?

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:00:47

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