• Natasha Alvar

What Games We Play – Sex and Relationships in Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge

Image credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Natasha Alvar breaks down the subtexts of Mike Nichols’ iconic 1971 flick Carnal Knowledge.

During my time in university, I embarked on a mild route of flirtation with a fellow classmate. It was all fun and banter, until impulsively, he blurted out: "I think I'm falling in love with you." I say impulsive, but this was articulated through text, so there had to be some measure of premeditation. It was, to me, a serious declaration, and so I pursued him even more ardently, while things began to cool off on his end. What used to be amusing no longer was - I desired a change in status quo, he didn't, for things are only fun when games are played.

That is the belief of the men in Carnal Knowledge, much to their own detriment and folly. There is a hunger to embrace the carnal side of those they find attractive, with the men often remarking on a woman's "great legs" or the size of her tits. When Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) spot fresh-faced beauty Susan (Candice Bergen) at a co-ed college mixer, they speak in a language of possession, chasing her form with hungry looks, on the hunt like the persona in the Duran Duran song.

During a conversation with Sandy, Susan makes a point that social interactions aren’t an act, with the individual choosing to showcase different sides to different people. While we agree with her for the most part, we have to admit that there is a certain degree of masking when it comes to male-female relationships. To Susan, Sandy commends her on her brains, though we note he is somewhat surprised when she mentions that she’s going to be a lawyer. But when he is alone with Jonathan, the focus is very much on superficial aspects, like her looks and attractiveness.

Nichols positions these men in intimate spaces when they have these conversations – before going to bed, while in the shower, even our first interaction with them is via a conversation they have off-screen – yet all they discuss is the physical aspects of a relationship. They see pleasure in relation to themselves, with Sandy truly befuddled as to why a woman would allow a man to touch her breast, especially when she isn’t getting paid. This is the way both men see these relationships, as transactional (Sandy even barters for more kisses, using time as a quantifier). Thus, as Sandy escalates things with Susan, it is not on her terms and not even his own, but based on Jonathan’s view of how things should progress.

It becomes clear that Susan doesn’t desire Sandy – her relationship with him revolves around a sense of pity, where she begins a conversation with him because she feels sorry for him, lets him grope her and bestows a hand-job on him because she doesn’t know how to reject him. It is certainly problematic, as some older pieces of cinema can be when looked upon with modern eyes – Susan is clearly unconsenting, yet persuaded to give in since women don’t say no to men. The onus is on Sandy to walk away, but he doesn’t, instead guilt-tripping Susan into advancing their physical relationship. Susan’s instructions to Sandy on how to kiss, and not missing a beat when it came to beating the meat (ha!), does make us wonder at her claims of being a virgin – perhaps she is aware of what a man like Sandy needs to hear to feel safe.

After Sandy’s confession to Jonathan about the intimate details of their date, Jonathan decides to ask Susan out – he wants a slice of the pie, and figures if Susan can put out for someone like Sandy, it would be easier for him. Nichols very cleverly constructed a pointed gaze between the two during the mixer, and while Jonathan’s desire for her is overt since we are privy to it, we aren’t sure of Susan’s side of things. She does show up for their date, and refers to him as “sexy”, a word she asserts Sandy uses, but seems to be more of her perspective on things. Yet, we never see her pointedly accede to any of his requests. As he tries to arrange another date, she doesn’t agree to any of his propositions, and he invites himself to meet up with her after she sees her folks.

It becomes clear that Jonathan pursues Susan not for her own worth, but for what she means to Sandy. He scoffs at Susan’s descriptor of Sandy as “sensitive” and becomes overly competitive over the number of books he has read in comparison to Sandy, using that as a yardstick for sensitivity. As he blathers on to Susan about his messed-up childhood and the failures of his father, we recall his advice to Sandy about using his childhood as leverage to gain sympathy. None of these moments with Susan play out as authentic, with Jonathan constantly manipulating these interactions in order to achieve a sexual pay-out.

When the two finally have sex, there is nothing romantic about it – Jonathan grunts on top of Susan, obscuring most of her, giving us little glimpses of her face and its expressions when she moves. As Jonathan finishes, there is no reaction on her part, and he rolls over immediately after he’s done, a shit-eating grin on his face. He gets his satisfaction, she clearly doesn’t.

The viewer can’t help but note the setting where Jonathan makes his proclamation of his virility and manhood – at a swimming pool in full view of other half-naked men. Sandy and Jonathan continue the celebration through the male locker room, while we ruminate on what the celebration is truly about. Jonathan’s joy is about sexual conquest, not consummation – he not only exerts his dominance over Susan’s body, but in a way, by having sex with Sandy’s girlfriend before Sandy does, it posits his authority over Sandy as well.

And just like that, the ball’s back in Sandy’s court (the film throws in a tennis metaphor later on), and he needs to seal the deal with Susan. Once again, this desire to push things forward isn’t of his own volition, but is conceived in relation to Jonathan’s news – Jonathan had sex, so he needs to have sex.

Susan is more resistant to Sandy’s advances, her body language speaking volumes as she is turned away while he tries to cajole her to engage in lovemaking. In comparison to the more adventurous sexy times she and Jonathan enjoy in a dark, forested area, with Sandy it is clearly framed as a chore, the two squashed together on Sandy’s single bed in broad daylight, debating the effectiveness of a condom Sandy whipped out of his drawer.

In the dance scene that follows, Nichols arranges it such that Susan gets a chance to dance with both men. The way she is handed off from Sandy to Jonathan highlights how both men view her, as an object for their own pleasure. The framing of the scene after that cements this – the camera focuses on her while the men are off-screen in the peripheries, with Susan’s attention and gaze divided between the two men, both competing for her regard. However, it does appear that Susan and Jonathan have greater potential of moving beyond these hollow interactions and relationships. Susan’s dance with Sandy is awkward, while her movements with Jonathan are more relaxed, and they have more chemistry with each other as they vibe together on the dance floor.

Jonathan speaks to Susan of his jealousy upon his discovery of their amorous encounters, and delivers an ultimatum for her to end things. Susan’s pity for Sandy comes across here again, as she labels him “helpless”, “vulnerable”, explaining her difficulty in ending things. She builds a contrast between two men – Sandy as the sensitive one, while Jonathan is the stronger man. Susan is unable to remove the men from these boxed categories, despite Jonathan’s show of vulnerability to her.

But you see, despite this sensitive display, his anger stems from a comparative lens – why does Sandy get something, and he doesn’t? She’s able to discern Sandy’s thoughts and moods, but can’t do the same for him. Jonathan’s juvenile mindset doesn’t allow him to realise that Susan interacts with both of them differently because they are different men. Instead, he aggressively hounds her in the hallways, pushing ultimatums and demands onto her, and Susan finds herself caught with these two options. She loves Jonathan more, but he is the more volatile option of the two, and she isn’t sure if she will still remain alluring to him once she no longer belongs to Sandy.

The choice of a telephone scene for the break-up between Jonathan and Susan ties a nice bow on things – that is after all how their dalliance began. Susan is blindsided by Jonathan’s desire to end things, and Bergman’s performance is astounding here, to have tears on her face yet forced to mask the emotions from her voice. Jonathan appears apathetic but later on, as he watches the domestic scene between Susan and Sandy unfold in front of him while they pack for a camping trip, there is an unspoken air of how this could have been him if he had been less obsessed with playing games and maintaining the upper hand.

We move to the future (Nichols transitions with such ease here) – Sandy has married Susan, but doesn’t appear to be happy. He still looks at women and even wants Jonathan to introduce him to an attractive woman he sees walking by. Even when he describes his life with Susan – which sounds like a full, rewarding life – he sighs a lot and sounds bored. Both men want what the other has; Sandy wants to fuck around like Jonathan, while Jonathan wishes he could meet a girl to fall in love with. However, we know that the two men wouldn’t be satisfied even if things were swapped around.

An opportunity arises for Jonathan when he becomes acquainted with Bobbie, a woman physically endowed in a way that should satisfy him, especially since he laments about almost finding the one some years ago, but having to let her go because her butt was flat and her bosom wasn’t to his standards.

Besides the first scene, most of Jonathan’s scenes with Bobbie are in the bedroom – irony here, since they are frequently naked with each other yet never truly intimate. There is a sense of time passing, but Bobbie’s role in Jonathan’s life is still limited to the sex she gives and the sex he takes. Ann Margaret, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, goes from this giggly, bright-eyed woman to a soulless one. One scene in particular stands out, where after some flirty pillow talk, Jonathan heads to the bathroom for a shower, and she props herself up only to slump over. There is this emptiness within her, and she is trying to chase it away by shacking up with Jonathan, who nearly has a coronary at the sentiment.

Jonathan confides in Sandy about his impotence (Nicholson speaks directly to the camera here, and we feel like he is confiding in us), which the latter ignores to laud Jonathan as a lucky guy for landing someone as physically attractive as Bobbie. It is clear that Jonathan doesn’t want to be with her, but feels like he has no choice because of his impotence. Leaving Bobbie and trying his luck out there might bring the problem back again, and Jonathan is unwilling to stake his virility against the possibility of finding love. Bobbie wants the bliss of domestic life, and she hangs on to Jonathan even when he becomes emotionally abusive. What we see clearly as depression, he sees as laziness, and increasingly, she becomes the shackles around his ankle he cannot remove.

Sandy walked away from his marriage with Susan because it wasn’t fun and exciting anymore, choosing sex over a stable, long-term relationship. Jonathan also chooses sex over commitment, frustrated with Bobbie’s pleas for marriage and children. Finally, things lead up to a decision of mutual carnality – I’ll let you bang my girl if I can bang yours. Jonathan suggests they trade, since Sandy is with a new woman now – Cindy, played by Cynthia O’Neal – another shiny new toy for Jonathan to covet, and Sandy is more than willing since he’s had his eye on Bobbie for a while now.

As Jonathan tries to have his way with Cindy, she rejects him, not because she’s with Sandy, but because she refuses to be traded amongst the men like a doll. Jonathan is free to come to her, however, Sandy cannot sleep with Bobbie.

No one is faithful in Carnal Knowledge, with the exception of Bobbie, though as we consider what happens between her and Jonathan in the future, and how she divorced him and took him for every cent he had, we can’t help but consider the first scenario she performs with him at the back of the cab, where she playfully threatens to do what she actually does. It’s certainly foreshadowing, but at the same time, did she have an agenda in her relationship with Jonathan? Did she want to marry him because she loved him, or just fixate on him in order to fulfil her desires of marriage and motherhood?

As we move further into the future, things get even bleaker. Jonathan takes us through a slideshow of all the women he’s had in the course of his life – a tasteless and vulgar endeavour – his entire person leaking with bitterness and anger. Sandy is now in a relationship with an even younger woman, having convinced himself that they have something special and different. But we know better.

The film ends with Jonathan achieving sexual pleasure through the hands of a prostitute. There is none of the spontaneity that comes from dating, and when the woman forgets and deviates from the script, Jonathan is unable to improvise. Instead, they repeat the script so she can get it right. We see that a specific set of conditions is needed for Jonathan to get off – he needs to be in control of things and in charge, so even an accidental bit of improv is unacceptable.

In comparison to other Mike Nichols’ films, like Closer or The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge doesn’t have the same level of spark, both in terms of visual storytelling and characterisation. And it makes perfect sense, for the characters in Closer are chasing intimacy (despite their adulterous ways), while the characters here are chasing the opposite. So yes, it feels a little cold and flat, for that is the world of our characters, that of suffocating unhappiness, a joyless state never to be budged from – the price of playing these carnal games.