Color, 1971, 98 mins.

Directed by Mike Nichols

Starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Rita Moreno, Cynthia O'Neal, Carol Kane / Written by Jules Feiffer / Cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital Mono

Not exactly what people expected from the man behind The Graduate, the controversial Carnal Knowledge belongs with the ranks of Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat as one of the films that shattered sexual censorship taboos in the early '70s. The difference here, of course, lies in the fact that the supposedly "pornographic" content of the film lies almost entirely in its dialogue; only a few seconds of the film contain actual nudity or sexual activity. Nearly thirty years after its initial release, long after the furor has died down, the film still manages to shock and disturb; while it may not be as easy to take as other films from its director and stars, Carnal Knowledge could very well be their finest hour.

Two college roommates, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), candidly share stories about their sexual fantasies. At a college mixer, Jonathan urges Sandy to go after Susan (Candice Bergen). However, Jonathan later goes after Susan himself, and both men lose their virginity with her. From this point on, both Jonathan and Sandy experience one dysfunctional relationship after another, with Jonathan in particular building up a reservoir of resentment and distrust toward the female gender. His relationship with Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a declining sex kitten, results in her becoming a housebound wretch who cries for marriage to justify her existence, while Sandy dates gradually younger women in an attempt to deny his shortcomings as a man.

Obviously not a feel-good movie, Carnal Knowledge is nevertheless laceratingly witty and stunning well acted. Nicholson has never been better, but everyone else is up to his level. Ann-Margret finally proved she could really act and opened up several new doors for her '70s work (Joseph Andrews, Tommy), and Candice Bergin finally got to flex her acting muscles after wallowing in truly bizarre Hollywood exploitation films (The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, The Day the Fish Came Out). Finally, Garfunkel made the complete transition to actor in what would prove to be a very unusual career, climaxing (in a manner of speaking) with Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing. Therefore, while this film may be classified most obviously as art, it offers quite a few pleasures for sleazemongers as well. And don't forget Rita Moreno's incredibly surreal cameo in the last scene, one of the most unsettling finales of the decade. Nichols displays a sure cinematic hand throughout and makes some surprising choices along the way. He approaches Jules Feiffer's script (originally a play and actually produced on the stage many years later) as a kind of scientific experiment, avoiding any kind of music score apart from a few bland source tunes in the background. Giuseppe Rotunno's elegant widescreen photography gives the proceedings a Sartre-inspired ambience in which the world seems to have been pared down to a few pathetic players, only one of whom is even dignified with a last name. The clean, precise lighting ranges from icy white (the ice skating sequence, the last scene in Sandy's apartment) to rich, dusky shades of brown and gold (the college and Bobbie sequences); these startling visual contrasts echo the characters' inability to reconcile their romantic fantasies with the reality of thier fellow human beings.

MGM's DVD presentation of Carnal Knowledge improves significantly on the Criterion laserdisc, thanks to a subtle, dusky anamorphic transfer. It still looks like a '70s film, obviously, but this is a film best experienced letterboxed or not at all -- and it's never looked better than it does here. A few hints of grain and some fluctuating shadows are the only noticeable flaws in the source print, which is in excellent condition. The mono audio is clear and definitely acceptable, since it consists almost entirely of dialgoue. No trailer is included (assuming one ever existed), but the booklet enclosure features some nice factual tidbits, mostly related to the film's legendary courtroom battles beginning in Albany, Georgia and ending in the Supreme Court.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Frequently Asked Questions