Carnal Knowledge (1971 USA)

Bobbie: “The reason I sleep all day is because I can’t stand my life!”

Jonathon: “What life?!”

Bobbie: “Sleeping all day!…I need a life.”

Jonathon: “Get a job!”

Bobbie: “I don’t want a job. I want you.”

Jonathon: “I’m taken, by me! Get out of the house, do something useful, Goddammit.” There are some real funny one liners if you can stay awake. Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols, from a script by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, is a dud without a single likable or really interesting character. Nichols’ film is a series of cartoon panels with no sense of any life surrounding the characters. Nichols appears to have been influenced by the films of Bergman and Antonioni though he lacks their brilliance. His reach exceeded his grasp. The result is an attempt at what was hoped to be a genre that never materialized: American art cinema.

The men in Carnal Knowledge know that there is a connection between sex and happiness, and deal with that link like ten year old boys. We first meet them as young collegians, impressionable, horny, and hugely vulnerable. Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) know nothing about how the world of romance works, but Jonathan feels the need to act as though he is wiser than Sandy, a Lothario with a line of invisible women in his wake. 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 tits-and-ass 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 remain too obsessed with sex and fail to maintain a meaningful relationship. The film is about those of us who remain teenagers in adult bodies.

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 deep enough. Jack Nicholson’s Jonathon character seems just hateful toward women, and he certainly repelled this viewer with his nastiness. Films 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.

This is an ensemble drama characteristic of the four main characters — Jonathan, Sandy, Susan, and Bobbie — each carving out a net of sexual frustration around the other to the point where life turns into a prison of despair. Their world does not include anyone else. The outsiders, found in the other female 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. Re-positioning Ann-Margret from sex goddess to that of a dramatic figure works quite well too. Many claim CK is a dark comedy, but I found no humour in its realm, after searching every nook and cranny. Some might find Sandy and Jonathan’s failures to be melancholy funny, but I was hopelessly depressed throughout. Carnal Knowledge’s components are spotless, but it forgets to do anything besides tell a story of constant grieving — and maybe some folk can take to it, but I can’t.



  1. As someone who has never seen this film before, I have to say the names are quite confusing gender-wise. I thought ‘Bobbie’ was the name of a bloke, and that the quote you started your review with was from a gay love scene with Jack Nicholson, clearly I was mistaken ha ha! XD

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ha ha, yes the names are a disaster – ‘Sandy’ sounds like a woman, but its the dude holding the razor in the first image of this post. ‘Bobbie’ conjures up manliness, but instead she’s a busty woman…Americans like to use silly names for their characters. I remember being repelled by the heroine in “Scream” because her name was Sidney. That can only be a man’s name for me. But I like your take on it, lol! As a gay love drama it could have been comedy gold. 🙂


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