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Carnal Knowledge
cast: Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Carol Kane

director: Mike Nichols

94 minutes (18) 1971
widescreen aspect ratio 2.35:1
Momentum Take One
DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Emma French
Nichols' 1971 film, newly released on DVD, is a black comedy of manners on a par with The Birdcage but surpassed by his early hit The Graduate. Purporting to accurately expose male vanity and the artifice of dating, the overstated battle of the sexes is ultimately misanthropic. Whilst much of the memorable and naturalistic dialogue on sexuality rings all too true, the mannered camerawork constantly enacts emotional distance. The film, does, however, neatly subvert the classic male bonding narrative to provide a cynical but plausible account of sexual activity from callow youth to hardened middle age.
   Garfunkel's performance as the awkward sexual ing´┐Żnue Sandy is genuinely cringe making and evocative of early fumblings. Nicholson's sleazy turn as the sexual adventurer, Jonathan Fuerst looks more like Nicholson playing Nicholson, and the polar opposition of Jonathan and Sandy is a little too heavy-handed. The star female turn of the film is Bergen as Susan, strong-minded without any stridency, radiating beauty and intelligence. Ann-Margret, as Bobbie, a buxom physical precursor to Kirsten Dunst, exudes copious sexuality, but all too soon stultifies into zombie-like repetition of a desire for marriage and children, despite her beau Jonathan's patent inadequacy for either role. Cynthia O'Neal, as Cindy, provides a welcome oasis of resistance to female passivity, and her stereotyping as masculine and domineering by Sandy and Jonathan exposes their own shortcomings rather than hers. Sadly, the women who flit across the scene after Cindy are not granted any ability to speak for themselves, including a prostitute reciting lines she has been fed and ciphers in Jonathan's slideshow. Kane, as Jennifer, provides the questionable male fantasy of a wise woman in a child's body, with none of the compensatory wit and parrying Kane supplied as Alison in Annie Hall a few years later.
   Nichols' cause and effect version of sexual politics does not allow much space for women's volition or autonomy, and female demands tend to be chastised vehemently. Though both Jonathan and Sandy are married for a significant chronological portion of the film, the marriages are wholly off-screen. Just as in Nichols' vision all women seek marriage no matter how inadequate their quarry is, so their reward for ensnaring their husbands is to be quite literally effaced from the narrative, presented as absent inconveniences. It is enticing to suggest that this dates the film, but even in the much later Nichols film, Working Girl, Melanie Griffiths is punished for her pursuit of a career by her neglected boyfriend's infidelity. The portrayal of sexuality is bleak rather than joyous, and it is difficult to distinguish whether the women are in the throes of pleasure or tears during sex. Still, the exclusively male perspective of the film is deliberate, and often insightful, perhaps rendering criticism of the females' marginalisation redundant.
   Ultimately the film tells the love story of Jonathan and Sandy, though the relationship is less homoerotic than it is narcissistic. Expressed in very different ways, their shared fear of female sexuality is concealed beneath mutual bombast. Jonathan's desire for and conquest of Sandy's first love Susan reads more as jealousy of her than it does as competition with Sandy. Consistency of characterisation comes at the expense of any surprises: from early on total denial of self-awareness or redemption for Jonathan is patent, and Sandy's bumbling idealism remains unattractively self-absorbed. With the focus placed so heavily on the two male leads, the lack of sympathy they elicit compromises the final, tedious scenes, but the film still presents many thought-provoking moments of veracity.
   The DVD has minimal extras, just a theatrical trailer, scene selection and small range of European subtitle options, emphasising this film's status as a welcome addition to the Nichols or Nicholson fan's collection; no classic but a period piece that still holds the attention today.
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