Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet (1977)

I often talk about how there’s no movie more difficult to enjoy than a comedy that isn’t funny and about how comedy is the genre that translates the least well across cultural barriers. That’s why I’m surprised to find myself so fascinated with the 1970s curio Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet – a corny, unfunny broad comedy that relies heavily on Czechoslovakian cultural tropes to sell its humor. Usually, when a comedy isn’t funny there just isn’t much else to chew on; the genre is almost entirely reliant on eliciting laughter from its audience to justify its existence. Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet is an unusual beast, though, as it pours just as much effort into its visual artistry as it does into delivering zany Jokes. Even though it isn’t the hi-larious good time it so desperately wants to be seen as, the artful visual craft of its buffoonery makes the experience totally worthwhile. The movie plays more like a comedic tangent from the tail end of the Czech New Wave than it does the Czech equivalent of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, even if its humor is on the same broad frequency.

Adele admittedly does attempt to bridge the cultural divide for American audiences by spoofing our own nationalistic sensibilities. The movie stars “America’s greatest detective from America’s greatest city” (NYC), throwing back to a macho Dick Tracy-style dime store crime novel archetype straight out of American pulp fiction. This modern Yankie cad version of Sherlock Holmes is hired by a Czech noblewoman to pursue a missing-person case in Prague. The only thing is that the missing person is her dog. And all the local Prague cops are good for is escorting him to local pubs with the best sausages and beer. Cue the Benny Hill-level musical jaunts to constantly remind the audience “This is hilarious!” at every step, even though the jokes themselves feel like Mel Brooks on one too many sleeping pills. There’s almost something adorable about the “Americans are like this, Czechs are like that” structure that guides film’s sense of humor, but the actual gags delivered through that apparatus are only really worth an occasional eye-roll and a “woof.” It’s cross-cultural Dad Humor.

Where the movie gets interesting is in the visual splendor of its mad-scientist villain’s evil deeds. You see, the noblewoman’s dog wasn’t kidnapped at all; it was eaten by a mad scientist’s carnivorous plant, which he trained to eat flesh on command to the sound of classical music. We visit the wicked doctor in his lab where he plays violin to woo mutant eyeball plants, who in turn weep at the beauty of the music. It’s all very Little Shop of Horrors, right down to the giant carnivorous plant being named Adele, which is not too far off from Audrey. It’s just so goddamn beautifully rendered, though. A mixture of traditional puppetry, hand-drawn animation, and stop-motion trickery (contributed by visual wizard Jan Švankmajer) is conjured to animate the plant-monsters as they perform the scientist’s commands, so that the central conflict feels more like it belongs in an surreal dream more than a broad, pre-ZAZ comedy. As the American detective catches onto the mad scientist’s evil deeds, he has to escalate his own crime-fighting tactics, which involves an exponentially complex array of Seussian steampunk contraptions. Their final showdown together eventually does reach the sense of comedic mania the film attempts to achieve via its Jokes throughout, and the movie ends on its strongest, funniest imagery as their rivalry gets increasingly out of hand.

The only movie I can think to compare Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet to is the Russian sci-fi comedy curio Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession. Both films suffer a little of the cultural & contemporary disconnect of being comedies out of their place & time (at least from a modern American perspective) but overcome those barriers through a surrealist sense of visual whimsy. It’s that kind of overcompensating visual artistry that makes the corny jokes it’s in service of feel more adorable than unendurable. I can’t say that the film had me genuinely laughing, but I can say that I was thoroughly amused from start to end. My only real complaint is that I would’ve preferred to spend more time with the plant-monsters than with the cunning detective, but I suppose that’s what we have Švankmajer’s directorial outings for.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Moon (1975) was the Most Honest Surrealist Take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice . . . Until Alice (1988)

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We were having a hard time in our initial conversation about August’s Movie of the Month, the fantasy realm art piece Black Moon, in pinpointing an exact interpretation of the film’s basic plot or intent. It’s highly likely, of course, that director Louis Malle didn’t want his exact intent or a definitive plot to be discernible at all in the film. Black Moon feels very much committed to a certain mode of surrealism that points to the coldness & seemingly random cruelty of existence by being, you guessed it, cold & randomly cruel. The interpretation we more or less settled on as a crew was that Black Moon was best understood as a down-the-rabbit-hole story that aped the structure of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series as a means of capturing his young protagonist’s unsettling journey into womanhood. Whatever that journey means or what it even is largely falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation but the Wonderland influence was undeniable as an overarching aesthetic in its basic structure. Black Moon is by no means a strict adaptation of that source material, but it does wear the influence on it sleeve, as openly admitted by Malle himself in interviews. I’d also argue that the film was the best surrealist take on Wonderland’s cold, random cruelty depicted on film for well over a decade, capturing that aspect of Carroll’s work better than any of its many peers that were straightforward adaptations of the novel. That is, until it was upstaged by 1988’s stop-motion animation classic Alice.

Czech director Jan Švankmajer had been producing short films all the way back to the same art scene in his home country that produced 1967’s Daisies before making his feature film debut in Alice. To be honest, Alice’s structure & pacing reflect his short film past in a lot of ways, recalling modern filmmakers like Guy Maddin & Roy Andersson who are remarkably adept at constructing individual images & vignettes, but struggle a little when it comes to piecing those moments together to achieve a digestible feature length work. Alice is a stunning visual achievement, a tactile work of stop-motion animation that values the specificity of curio cabinet oddities, Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, and taxidermy animals over the clay figurines we’re used to seeing in titles like Coraline & Kubo. What makes Alice interesting as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material, however, is not in the visual achievement, but in a tone that matches the cold surrealism of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. As Švankmajer put it himself, he wanted to reinvent the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in other adaptations that posed it as a fairy tale with a moral center and instead present it as a cold, amoral dream with no point to be made outside its own absurdism, a reading that captures the essence of Black Moon just as much as it hints at the power & intent of Carroll’s source material. Švankmajer explained, “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted finger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” Considered in that context, Black Moon also functions best as a dream & not as a fairy tale, despite what you’d expect based on its talking unicorn.

The difference between the dream structures of Alice & Black Moon, however, is that the latter often functions as a nightmare. Both films’ plots survive on the surreality of minute to minute obstinate confusion, but there’s a lighter tone to Alice that isn’t quite matched in Black Moon. Black Moon can be funny at times, but it often veers into uncomfortable imagery like hawk murder & interspecies breastfeeding, while Alice finds its individual vignettes in moments like a cute rat cooking a can of beans on its young protagonist’s head. Most of the film’s creepiness lies in its old world imagery, a curio cabinet specificity that recalls a similar immersion in Nature, strange animals, and odd domesticity to what we see in Black Moon’s languid sleepwalk through an earth tone dreamscape, but with noticeably less malice. Black Moon pulled a lot of its surrealist influence from Carroll’s creation in Alice in Wonderland, an uncaring, dreamlike tone that recalls the structure of a fairy tale, but without the lesson to be learned. 1988’s Alice picks up that torch & runs with it, applying that same amoral interpretation of Carroll’s intent to a straightforward adaptation of his novel. Together they have a lot to say about the potency of dream logic, the philosophical implications of surrealism, and the meaninglessness of meaning. I highly recommend them as a double feature next time you’re feeling particularly existential & loopy.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985).

-Brandon Ledet