Just like a novel or a piece of music, a film’s opening carries tremendous importance. In retrospect, it dictates everything. How do you capture the essence of your story without revealing your hand too early? How do you best encapsulate the tone – the gusto! – of your film without spoiling the many surprises that are to come? How do you choose to begin?
Oldřich Lipský’s delightfully absurd detective parody Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet begins with a conductor. He appears to be a man of great veneration, dressed in a well-cut black suit with a boisterous white bow-tie – indicative of his scrupulous demeanour about the very specific performance he is about to conduct. Nothing could possibly throw him off guard tonight. He is – as the kids would say – in the zone.
Then, out of nowhere, a picture jumps on-screen. Of an old dime novel. The conductor’s moving orchestral piece can still be heard, but some silly cartoon has visually hijacked his performance.
Oh, thank goodness — we’re back to our conductor. He remains totally unmoved by the recent commotion. Like a true professional, the show must go on.
Oh no! The very same still from the very same dime novel returns, but with it, a change in score. Now we hear a ragtime piece; a ludicrous jest that jarringly interrupts the concert’s musical elegance. Thankfully, its presence is only brief.
As expected, our conductor is still unphased. But the ragtime piece returns, again and again, until… he is no more.
Our magisterial conductor has been engulfed by this rapturous composition. There is no turning back now. The farce has begun.
Adele Has Not Had Supper Yet is a deeply peculiar film, and therefore it only makes sense that it is kickstarted by this deeply peculiar opening. This 1978 cult classic, curated for #We Are One by the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, tells the story of American detective Nick Carter (Michal Docolomanský) who travels to Prague on a strange case involving carnivorous plants and questionable espionage. While we’re introduced to the renowned detective as he is reading the newspaper, with a letter of affection from Sherlock Holmes seen on his desk, Nick Carter’s fictional existence actually predates Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary sensation by one year — first premiering in 1886 in a 13-week serial entitled The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crimes of Madison Square. Since then, this private-eye has been seen in various pulp magazines, novels, and films – from Zigomar contre Nick Carter in 1912 to Sky Murder in 1940. Cut to 1977, and Carter takes to Czechoslovakia in this parody of his serials, Adele Has Not Had Supper Yet.
The less said about the plot the better. While things can run a little dry here and there, as certain jokes overstay their welcome and the general pace hits a major slump at the end, there’s still plenty to admire. Like any great surreal work, this is chock-full of absurdity on every platter: incorporating various modes of animation and still photography, with menacing flora reminiscent of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and lots of deceitful men in bowler hats paired with secret passages, periscopes, and outlandish inventions. Anyone familiar with the cultural phenomena of Nick Carter, Sherlock Holmes, or even James Bond will find plenty to relish within this drunken farce – which even takes us on a little tour of Prague amidst all the hijinks.
Given what’s taking place around the world right now, if you do need to take a break from social media for your mental health – even if it’s just for 102 minutes – I would wholeheartedly recommend putting that time to Lipský’s film. During the 1970s, Czechoslovakia was facing political upheavals, which included police harassment and imprisonment of Czech artists. There was a strict censorship over the type of stories that were allowed to be told in Czechoslovakia, which meant a slew of ‘harmless’ comedies triumphed during these times. Many prolific Czech filmmakers (such as Miloš Foreman and Ivan Passer) emigrated to the United States in order to continue making films uncurbed. Therefore, it made sense that Lipský and screenwriter Jiří Brdečka – being known for their sly wit and dry humour – put their minds together to create something so joyously idiosyncratic; a jocular gem amidst the dire political rubble. While it’s imperative to stay involved, educated, and headstrong in times like these — if Adele Has Not Had Supper Yet can teach us anything — it’s that an occasional dose of escapism goes a long way.
During the opening moments of Oldřich Lipský’s Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet (1977), a close-up of a suited man conducting a classical music piece is intercut with a loud, boisterous folksy tune and colourful, printed penny-novel images of men in skirmishes. This twang is both a visual and auditory disruption to the elegance of the classical music overture: it’s fun, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is unexpected. There is no better way to set the tone for this colourful, farcical detective romp.
Set in the early 1900s, Adela follows famed Czech-American detective Nick Carter (Michal Docolomanský) who is called to Prague to solve the case of a Countess’ missing Great Dane. Detective Carter is a unique and endearing specimen: tales of his triumphs and adventures are printed and distributed, making him the most famous detective in the world (the character and film itself is based on the Detective Carter penny-novels which were first published in 1886). Men try to steal their way into his office to kill him in comical ways, but each time he foils them via a well-placed jumbo magnet, convenient trap doors or by the force of his stare alone. Equipped with an array of gadgets (exploding cigars, a punch-on-a-spring inside his hat) that would put Inspector Gadget to shame, he is paired with a sausage-scoffing and pilsner-inhaling local detective (Rudolf Hrusínský).
When it is suspected that a Baron’s flesh-eating plant swallowed the Countess’ dog up, hijinks ensue as the Baron-cum-Mad-Scientist/Botanist and his goonies try to foil Carter’s investigation.
Combining the Detective Nick Carter novels with The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), this film is full of quirks which makes it a delightful visual feast: plants have eyes, paint canvases have peep holes, horse carriages have periscopes for spying. Created by Czech surrealist artist Jan Švankmajer, the animation which allow for the plants to grow, perform tasks and consume are genius. There is a distinctive Czech-ness to it. While not entirely part of the Czech New Wave (it’s not clear if any critique of communism is outrightly being made, as is a common theme for CNW), its surrealism and absurdist sense of humour reminded me of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) – lightness in the face of social and political upheaval. As someone who has been spending isolation watching Daniel Craig’s James Bond films for the first time, I’ve found myself sorely missing in the newer Bonds the curiosity and creativity that Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet exhibits. Secret passageways, trap doors, gadgets, and carnivorous plants – the film delights in all the creative absurdity which fiction allows us to explore and burrow into. Sleek and sophisticated darkness can get boring and repetitive. Give me a slingshot, a hot-air balloon, and a momentary-suspension-of-belief perfectly timed descent.
Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet premiered as part of the We Are One: A Global Film Festival on 6 June 2020, and will be available to stream for free until 13 June 2020.
George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @geekap42
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Vogue Australia, Junkee, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @theclairencew.