Eve's Bayou (1997)
The narrator of *Eve's Bayou* begins her tale with a startling confession: "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old." Louis Batiste will indeed die before story's end, but in the potent family drama of *Eve's Bayou*, Louis is but a catalyst, a ghost who haunts his family even before he dies, inspiring in his own child both great love and the desire for murderous revenge.
Novice writer-director Kasi Lemmons has crafted a rich and intense drama in *Eve's Bayou*, mixing elements of classic tragedy and Creole Southern Gothic with the many and opposing spiritual influences at work in this dreamy tale of feminine power, of memory, love and family bonds and the slippery, mutable nature of truth.
In a Louisiana backwater, where the cypress trees are draped in Spanish moss and human emotions run as hot and thick as the steamy summer air, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) catches her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) *in flagrante delicto* with Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis is the town doctor, a smooth talking philanderer and charming rogue irresistible to every woman in the parish but his angry, betrayed wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve is the first in her family to discover what everyone else in town knows, and what her mother already suspects: Louis' housecalls aren't always medically necessary. The discovery marks a turning point for Eve -- she views her father with growing suspicion despite his calm reassurances and easy, blameless manner, ready to believe the worst of him, feeling acutely his betrayal of her mother, and sensing in the man both his sexual strength and masculine vulnerability.
Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), her father's favorite child, finds her own relationship to Louis changing and growing more complex as she gets older. She assumes the wife's role, abandoned by Roz, of waiting up for the husband and father who always returns home late. As Eve is fiercely devoted to Cisely, Cisely is fiercely protective of Louis. Most protective of all is Roz, on the verge of a breakdown as she watches over her children with a knowing eye. Roz is aided by Louis' sister Mozelle Batiste (Debbi Morgan), a thrice widowed woman with the gift of sight, who is always tragically blind to her own future. Eve, too, has the gift of seeing the future, but it is her sister Cisely who has the more potent power, inherited from her father, of twisting lies like yarn and weaving them into self-serving new truths. And, like her father, Cisely's weakness is a sexuality she can neither understand nor control.
This already incendiary situation of opposing family loyalties and powers is further inflamed by the introduction of voodoo, practiced by both Mozelle and Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a fearsome, swamp-dwelling voodoo witch. Through the eyes of young Eve, the corporeal world and the spiritual world are seen as inextricably mixed -- the dead walk, invisibly and at will, in the world of the living, working their unseen influences. In the matriarchal world of *Eve's Bayou*, it is both the irresistible allure and the powerful wrath of women that will be Louis' undoing, but it is also clear to young Eve that voodoo, hatred and desire are potent enough to murder her father. There is little doubt that Eve has a hand in killing Louis, although exactly how she accomplishes the deed is left ambiguous.
That Lemmons keeps *Eve's Bayou* from veering into a simplistic, overwrought melodrama is quite an accomplishment. She guides the film, with its psychologically complex characters and atmospheric setting, with real delicacy and a Bergmanesque touch. There are no villains in *Eve's Bayou* -- each character is drawn with such loving precision and understanding that no sin, no weakness or abuse of power is unforgiveable. It would be too easy, given the early prediction of Louis' death, to simplistically draw him as an evil man in order to justify a preordained death. Likewise, to make of Eve a simple child unaware of her own abilities and actions. But both Eve and Louis are weak and strong, knowing and unwise, reckless and full of regrets -- it is Louis' ability to craft a lie and Eve's ability to believe one that ultimately results in a tragedy neither has the power to prevent.
Smollett's performance is fine and open -- her acting lacks the self-conscious cuteness of many child actors, and there's a real maturity, complexity and sense of understanding to her portrayal of Eve. Jackson's smooth, easy manner makes him an appealingly flawed man, a man who is hard to hate despite his infidelities and weaknesses. Debbi Morgan's performance is fiery and vivid -- she has never exhibited such force and vigor on screen. Mozelle has a pivotal role as a conduit between the living and the dead and Morgan plays it with serious conviction and without hamminess.
With cinematography by Amy Vincent, *Eve's Bayou* is visually rich and atmospheric, the gorgeous, dreamy landscape of the bayou echoing the otherworldly visions of the women who live there. It is also rich with intricate, complex drama, and suffused with tragedy and magic, spirituality and sensuality, as the Batiste women confront their weaknesses, exorcise their demons and embrace the strange powers that are their birthright.