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Film / Carnal Knowledge

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Carnal Knowledge is a 1971 Dramedy directed by Mike Nichols, from a script by prolific cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer. It's about the sexual misadventures of Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), in three distinct acts set over a period of two decades.

Act I, circa 1950: Jonathan and Sandy are roommates at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Jonathan is obsessed with sex, while Sandy wants to find love. At a mixer, they both notice Susan (Candice Bergen), a student at nearby Smith College. Jonathan dares Sandy to ask her out. He approaches her, but she actually initiates the conversation. Soon Sandy and Susan are a couple, but Jonathan also secretly has a relationship with her. Eventually, she chooses Sandy.

Act II, circa 1960: The two men are now living in New York. Sandy is a doctor, Jonathan is an accountant. Sandy has married Susan and has settled into a domestic life. Jonathan prides himself as a Casanova but admits that he'd settle down with the right woman. He meets Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a curvaceous, but dense, actress. They eventually start living together, but between his self-centeredness and her imperfect psychological state, it's not a peaceful pairing. Meanwhile, Sandy grows bored with his bland married sex life and divorces Susan in favor of the younger Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal).

Act III, circa 1970: Both men are now 40 and suffer through a mid-life crisis. Sandy has begun a relationship with an 18-year-old hippie named Jennifer (Carol Kane), claiming that she's helped him achieve peace of mind. Jonathan has turned into a bitter misogynist, with erectile dysfunction issues. It's revealed that he married Bobbie and they had a daughter, but are now divorced. The film ends with Jonathan visiting Louise (Rita Moreno), a prostitute for whom he's a regular client. They end up doing an obviously much-practiced roleplaying routine: he lays back while she praises him for being a "real man".

A huge hit (one of the top 10 earning films of 1971) that also received lavish critical praise, it solidified Nicholson's star power and boosted most of the rest of the cast. But its sexually frank content, as well as nudity and profanity, made it hugely controversial as well, and it's still quite an eye-opener even today.

Jonathan Fuerst presents: Tropes on Parade!

  • Ambiguous Disorder: Bobbie really seems to be suffering from Depression, but it's never specifically cited as her problem.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: The only really overt sign that Jonathan and Sandy are Jewish is when Jonathan calls Sandy a schmuck in the penultimate scene, but it's still obvious. Fun fact: Jules Feiffer had to coach Jack Nicholson on the proper way to say "schmuck".
  • Bungled Suicide: The climax of Act II is when Sandy discovers that Bobbie has tried to kill herself, and calls an ambulance.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The titles on Jonathan's slide show are "Jonathan Fuerst presents a Jonathan Fuerst production: Ballbusters on Parade!".
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: At the end, Jonathan is unhappily paying alimony to Bobbie.
  • Embarrassing Slide: In the final act, Jonathan subjects Sandy and Jennifer to a slide show that's just an excuse for him to diss every female he's been involved with, all the way back to grade school. At one point, a slide of Susan comes up, but he skips past it and apologizes. Sandy, naturally, gets very unnerved at the sight of his ex-wife.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: In a very odd way, Jonathan and Sandy, who form the only consistent relationship in each other's lives.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: An issue for Jonathan that only gets worse over the years.
  • Love Triangle: The focus of Act I, with Sandy and Jonathan both involved with Susan.
  • May–December Romance:
    • In Act III, Sandy (40) and Jennifer (18), who wouldn't have even been alive when the events of Act I took place.
    • In the slide show, Jonathan says he had a fling with a 16-year-old girl.
  • Minimalist Cast: The story covers 20 years, but there are just six speaking roles, plus Jennifer.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: With Art Garfunkel as the co-lead, this film counts.
  • One-Gender School: Jonathan and Sandy attend all-male Amherst (it became coeducational in 1975), Susan attends all-female Smith (it's still a single gender undergraduate school, but men are now allowed in the graduate programs).
  • Platonic Prostitution: Jonathan's sessions with Louise do have a sexual component, but are more about his being able to listen to a woman tell him how wonderful he is and how he's just too real for most women to handle.
  • Porn Stache: Sandy has grown one in the final act.
  • Precision F-Strike: Several, plus some other previously-taboo words, which helped whip up controversy over the film.
  • Really Fond of Sleeping: After a while, Bobbie spends most of her days in bed.
  • Really Gets Around: Jonathan brags about having sex with lots of women, but it just comes off as the hollow boasting of an unhappy man.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jonathan is the Hot-Blooded Red Oni, Sandy is the more reserved Blue Oni.
  • Stunned Silence: How Sandy and Jennifer react to Jonathan's Ballbusters on Parade! slide show.
  • The Voiceless: Jennifer doesn't speak in her one scene, in part because of the above-mentioned Stunned Silence.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Susan and Bobbie are spoken of in later acts, but don't actually appear. Cindy totally disappears after her last scene.