Here’s the relevant passage from the kinda-perceptive Anthony Lane appreciation in the New Yorker (PS: I think he’s dead wrong about the “best movie” thing, if only because The Graduate changed popular culture so much ((that counts for more with me than Lane)):
Hence the deep discomfort of “Carnal Knowledge” (1971)—the most bothersome movie that Nichols ever made, as well as the saddest, the most provoking, the most pretentious, and, despite all that (or because of it), the best. If someone were to show it next week, in homage, at Film Forum or Lincoln Center, and invite a bunch of college kids, split fifty-fifty between male and female, to hang around after the screening and talk it through, the evening might still simmer into an argument, or a fight. You wouldn’t say that about “Working Girl” or “Biloxi Blues” (1988), or, for that matter, most of the movies we have seen this year.
The film, written by Jules Feiffer, tracks a couple of friends—Jonathan (Nicholson) and the bashful Sandy (Art Garfunkel)—from college to middle age, and thus from one disappointment to the next. Women are pursued, seduced, berated, swept away and then aside; listen with care, especially to Jonathan, and you will hear an undying aria of misogyny, replete with every quaver of lust and every known crotchet of fear. Yet the film is not misogynist—partly because its pervading mood is one of equal-opportunity misanthropy, and partly, also, because Nichols takes such pains to demonstrate that Feiffer’s script is, and never can be, the whole story. Consider the infamous slide-show sequence, in which Jonathan takes Sandy and Jennifer (Carol Kane) through a roster of his conquests, near-misses, and the occasional never-was: “This one’s Rosalie,” he says. “Rosalie looked just like Elizabeth Taylor in ‘National Velvet.’ Had a crush on Rosalie from fourteen to fifteen, and I never went near her. In those days, we had illusions.” And so on, up to the scabrous final flourish: “Here’s a sixteen-year-old I gave twenty bucks to one night in the Village. Maybe you know her, Jennifer, she gave me a dose.” The screen goes blank.
Nicholson is extraordinary here, and his sign-off—a stammering “That’s All Folks,” in the wholly appropriate tones of Porky Pig—still makes me catch my breath. Would the scene work onstage? Yes, but we would miss the ways in which Nichols, striving to think his way outside and through the theatrical box, shoots Jonathan in a string of different ways: from the side, in silhouette; stranded in the cool white room, in velvet slipper and no socks, as Sandy and a weeping Jennifer rise from the couch and soundlessly leave; alone at last, with the fun over, gently refreshing his Scotch. No man is an island, reportedly, but this one is. We don’t feel sorry for him, but we have no doubt whatever that he’s lost. Any movie buff watching in 1971 would have grasped, from the framing of the scene, that Nichols had been keeping up with Fellini and Antonioni, perhaps too dutifully so, and, indeed, the cameraman on “Carnal Knowledge” was Giuseppe Rotunno, who had already worked with Fellini on “Satyricon” and elsewhere. This blending of a new visual method, unfamiliar to many eyes, with the stream of verbal acidity is hardly an unqualified success, but the ambition is an honorable one, and the unhappy land that the film reveals is not one that Nichols cared to revisit, on the big screen, for too long.
For good reason. The hip-neurotic attitude toward female sexuality — it’s bold to go hoo-hah that it’s out there, but it’s still weird, scary, unknowable stuff — was really dated by the end of the ’60s. The message when you saw the film back then, I’m sorry, is that guys were being put into an impossible box by the demands of women (who knows what they want) even if you acknowledged they were sexual beings. It’s a prime limitation of the time, of Pfieffer, of Nichols, and apparently, of Anthony Lane unto this day.