Review: 'Eve's Bayou' a dreamscape of sex and tragedy
November 11, 1997
Web posted at: 2:45 p.m. EST (1945 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Writer/director Kasi Lemmons' sensuous new film,
"Eve's Bayou," is a near-monumental achievement. Though
"Waiting to Exhale" and "Soul Food" were obvious
crowd-pleasers that bumped so-called "black" cinema out of
the trap of endless urban crime capers, this one is the real
torch carrier for a literate new beginning.
A nostalgic, tragic, exhilarating reverie, it's a movie that
defines the boundaries of a magic-shrouded world and then
(through the eyes of a child who is too smart for her own
good) proceeds to thoroughly convince us of that world's
existence. Along with "L.A. Confidential," "Eve's Bayou" is
the most thoroughly and consistently realized vision I've
seen at the movies in 1997. And I do mean "vision."
The only precedent I can think of is Charles Laughton's cult
classic, "The Night of the Hunter," but "Eve's Bayou"
contains little of that film's intentional fairy-tale
gaudiness. Amy Vincent's crisp cinematography is
magnificent, the best I've seen in a long, long while. Her
intoxicating images of a small Louisiana town in the 1960s
are bright and vivid, setting a direct counterpoint to a
story that deals with, among many other things, voodoo, and
the destructive capacity of overpowering sexuality.
Everyone who worked on the film, from Lemmons and Vincent
down through the large cast (especially Samuel L. Jackson,
who gives a slippery, Oscar-caliber performance) works as a
cohesive unit to create a finely tuned dreamscape of memory
and magic. Simply put, this is one entertaining movie, as
consistently original and intimate as commercial filmmaking
Ten-year-old charmer Jurnee Smollett plays Eve Batiste. As
the film opens, Eve's parents are throwing a lavish party for
their friends and family. The adult Eve's quick voice-over
establishes the concept that what we're looking at may very
well be something other than the complete truth, a selective
remembrance of a childhood that may or may not have existed.
Though Eve's father (Jackson's character) is a doctor, the
Batistes' wealth and social standing certainly doesn't gibe
with the constraints that blacks were battling in the deep
south 30 years ago. Their house (and the house of Eve's
psychic Aunt Moselle, played by Debbi Morgan) is gorgeously
furnished, with beautiful heirlooms that suggest a
long-standing, though never explained, family opulence.
Eve's father is singled out at the party as the object of
affection for most of the women in the Parish. Jackson, a
sharply-cut suit hanging from his gaunt limbs, works the
crowd like a sexual politician. His smile strategically
spreads across his face like a secret invitation, and the
women (including his older daughter, Cisely, played by Meagan
Good) hover around him, hoping for a dance or a knowing gaze.
His wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield, who looks a lot like Angela
Bassett and is twice as subtle an actress) may have
reservations about him, but she's under the spell, too.
As the party is drawing to a close, Eve stumbles upon her
father drunkenly having sex with a vampish party-goer who is
not her mother. Smollett's gasping, pained response to this
sight is unbelievable. Any child who can pull off this many
ascending layers of shock in a single moment is more than a
precocious show-off. I've got a feeling we'll have the
pleasure of seeing this young actress blossom into adulthood
much in the same way we did with Jodie Foster.
This horrible, revelatory moment triggers the contradictory
impulses in Eve that drive the rest of the story. She
desperately wants to love her father, but begins to
understand that the Sunday afternoon housecalls he's been
making are not all of a medical nature. Her father is
sleeping with half the women in town, and Eve realizes that
her mother, though suspicious, is willfully blind to his
indiscretions. Those indiscretions grow more brazen and
twisted as the story unfolds, and the fabric of the family
begins to tear.
This undercurrent of sexuality informs practically every
scene in the film, threatening to explode Eve's idealized
vision of her family and hometown. This is not an easy thing
to maintain throughout an entire picture (the subtleties of
sexual desire not being a concrete object that the camera can
bluntly record), but Lemmons' sure hand seldom wavers. A
command of the cinematic language from a director this
untested is rare, indeed. It's obvious that Lemmons also has
a long, possibly glorious career ahead of her.
Lemmons pulls off one utterly amazing scene that's audacious
in its theatricality. Aunt Moselle, whose third husband has
just died as tragically as the previous two, explains to Eve
why she feels that she's cursed, that any man who marries her
will come to an untimely end. As she describes a long-ago
confrontation between a lover and one of her husbands, the
camera pans over to a nearby mirror. In the mirror, we see
the terrible moment she's describing taking place. Two
ghosts from her past confront each other, and, though she
steps into the frame to confirm her devotion, a gun is fired.
Suddenly, the man she most loved is gone forever. It's a
shocking, profoundly moving moment, and is as good as any
scene I've witnessed this year.
I've already read a few critics who like this film, but with
reservations. I think the reason for this is that the often
stylized dialogue is throwing people off a little bit. I'll
admit that there's a sometimes ungainly elegance to the
characters' longings, but this is a fiery visit to one
person's imagination. Eve's eventual pursuit of a local
black magic priestess (played in creepy white-face by Diahann
Carroll) as a solution to her fathers' philandering ways may
also be perceived as too baroque for its own good, but it's
the logical extension of the movie's setting and
psychological flamboyance. Eve's dream turns into a
nightmare, but Lemmons seems to be saying that the healing
power of the family ultimately offers our only true
"Eve's Bayou" contains profanity, two pivotal sexual
encounters, and some violence. Children should probably stay
away, though more mature teen-agers should enjoy it
immensely. Rated R. 109 minutes. See it.
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