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Review: 'Eve's Bayou' a dreamscape of sex and tragedy

Eve 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 currently gets.

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.

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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 redemption.

"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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