Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess—which I sadly have not read—the film follows sociopath Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in his crime spree, capture, imprisonment, and attempted “cure” through the Ludovico technique.
For a film about violence and rape, it is surprisingly beautifully shot. Kubrick takes his time telling the story, and there are a lot of slow, patient pullbacks and pans. It’s an interesting contrast to the gruesome content.
Throughout the film, the violence and rape that occurs is presented in a curious way. There is almost always some sort of music (usually Beethoven) that is incongruous to the events taking place—a lighthearted, beautiful classical score over a woman being gang-raped, or a jolly rendition of “Singing in the Rain” as Alex and his three “droogs” assault a couple in their home. Additionally, at times the violence itself is portrayed as a kind of art form. When Alex and his droogs encounter another gang in a deserted theater, the hand-to-hand combat that follows is almost a stylized, choreographed dance. Later, Alex’s violence against his droogs by the canal is filmed in slow motion, like a bizarre and beautiful performance.
Overall, there is an unsettling dark humor in these violent scenes. Alex’s final act of violence, bludgeoning a woman to death with an enormous phallic sculpture, is probably the height of this comedy. Alex taunts the woman by hitting the sculpture and causing it to wobble. She is infuriated, telling him not to touch it because “it’s a very important work of art!” They circle each other, flailing wildly, exchanging witty comments—until the scene ends abruptly with her horrifying death.
I saw this unsettling tone as a disturbing glimpse into Alex’s perspective. As viewers we are faced with the dissonance of sympathizing with the victims of Alex’s violence, and also being soothed and almost amused both by the music and by Alex’s blasé attitude. It also gives the impression that perhaps events like this are happening every day—that this is a world where gang-rape and breaking-and-entering are the norm.
The use of music is of course significant, not only for the way it alters the tone of the scenes, but also for the way it introduces a juxtaposition of high and low culture. Here we have Alex, a clearly uncultured sociopath, who has a great love of Beethoven. This love for classical music is an unexpected quality in someone who is otherwise uncouth and destructive. This juxtaposition can also be seen in Alex’s dialect, which appears to be some combination of Cockney English, Elizabethan English, and gibberish. At any point in the film Alex can be seen to say something as childish as “Eggy weggs! I would like… to smash ‘em” or something that would not be out of place in the sixteenth-century: “What then didst thou in thy mind have?” There is an unsettling meshing of classes in this futuristic world, and Alex’s curious combination of influences is unsettling to the viewer. He cannot be pegged as one particular type of person, but almost avoids characterization: is he dim-witted or a genius? Is he sensitive or a brute?
Throughout the film I noticed a strange homoerotic quality to Alex’s relationships with most of the male authority figures he encounters. When the probation officer Mr. Deltoid appears in Alex’s apartment, Alex is very notably in his underwear. Mr. Deltoid holds Alex close to him, and even hits Alex’s penis for emphasis as he lectures about the “nastiness” that Alex has been up to.
The instances of homoeroticism become only more explicit after Alex is arrested. In the police station, one of the cops leans close to Alex’s face and says, “Nasty cut you’ve got there, little Alex. Shame it spoils all your beauty.” Later, in his narration, Alex describes prison as being full of “leering criminals and perverts ready to dribble all over a luscious young malchick like your storyteller”. Here, the camera shows us another inmate puckering up in Alex’s direction. And when Alex requests that he be able to ask the chaplain a question in private, the chaplain tells him to speak up and not to be shy: “I know all the urges that can trouble young men deprived of the society of women.” (“It’s nothing like that, Father,” Alex says, calmly brushing past this idea. Alex is very relaxed about these homoerotic actions—again, giving one the sense that perhaps, in this society, this is the norm.)
Sex is certainly an instrument of power throughout the film. Alex rapes women almost as a recreational sport, and he exercises power and control in doing so. (It is no coincidence that he ultimately kills the woman with a huge statue of a penis.) But after he is arrested, it is oddly as though the authority figures have a sexual power over him. He becomes the objectified one, and it is remarkable to see how helpless he becomes. It’s an interesting concept because, in a way, it links these supposedly moral authority figures to the very crimes for which they have arrested and imprisoned Alex.
This sense of moral ambiguity is another theme that the film explores. That is the question behind Alex’s “cure”: is he really cured if, as the chaplain points out, he is only avoiding sex and violence in order to also avoid pain and nausea?
Additionally, there do not seem to be any characters who are wholly good or evil—just a lot of self-interested, morally ambiguous characters. Even the writer, whom Alex attacks and whose wife Alex rapes at the beginning of the film, is not likeable when we encounter him again at the end of the film. In fact, he comes across as unstable and maybe even sadistic, and I found myself sympathizing instead with Alex as the writer tortures him!
After his “cure”, Alex becomes helpless and pathetic, and despite the horrific things that we have watched him do for the first hour of the film, we eventually feel sorry for him. In this way, the film toys with our sense of morality—a character who is so clearly “bad” can easily switch to “good” if we see some vulnerability, and vice versa.
This film is horrific and beautiful at the same time. It’s a little slow-paced, but I didn’t mind. It has a lot of richness and depth—it probably merits a couple more viewings—and in the end I think it is Alex’s enigmatic charisma that carries the viewer through all the almost un-stomachable scenes of rape, beatings, and freaky eye specula.