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Carnal Knowledge

(1971, Nichols)
A film from Rita Moreno

Sandy: "You were in love with Gloria.
Jonathan: "I was starting to be in love with her, then she let me feel her up on the first date. Turned me right off."
Sandy: "You kept going with her, though."
Jonathan: "Well, she let me feel her up."

This small exchange occurs right at the beginning of this film, even before we see the characters faces; and yet, it says so much about their nature and their mindset that we feel like we already know everything we needed to know about them, and not in a good way.

Carnal Knowledge follows these two best friends, Sandy and Jonathan (Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson), during three distinct stages of their life: college, several years after, and when they're middle-aged. The focus of each act is how the two interact and engage both with different women in their lives, and with each other.

If there's one thing we can gather from that opening quote, and from watching these two men interact, is that men are pigs. Cause that exchange perfectly encapsulates the contradictory ways these two men feel about women ("I want them to put out, I will even force them to... but if they do, they're sluts"). The two are stuck in a constant quest to prove themselves to each other, while also performing a metaphorical "dick measuring contest".

This male chauvinistic perspective is perfectly captured by Jules Feiffer's script, which highlights how these two men see women as possessions, objects, and trophies to manipulate and concede from one to the other. Add to that the lack of moral scruples or any kind of boundaries from both, but especially Jonathan (Nicholson), and you got a pretty disgusting snapshot of the typical male behavior.

In that respect, both Garfunkel and Nicholson are perfect on their roles. The first act is fairly balanced between the two, and their mutual courtship of Susan (Candice Bergen). However, from the second act on, the film focuses more on Nicholson's character, and you all know that Nicholson owns this sleazy character from start to finish, while subtly showing you where the cracks are in his persona.

The cast is rounded out by Ann-Margret, who plays Nicholson's girlfriend during that second act, and the way she showcases the crumbling of this woman at the hands of Jonathan is excellent. This was the third Nichols film I've seen in a short amount of time (after The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), and he clearly has a talent for exposing the vulnerabilities of male/female interaction.

As for Rita Moreno, I was surprised to see that despite fairly notable billing, she's only in the last five minutes of the film. But her role is integral to cap everything, as she defines Nicholson's persona in a hazy monologue that serves to feed his male ego and show us what he truly craves.