Actress-turned-writer/director Kasi Lemmons makes a smashing directorial debut with this sensual sleeper that slipped into theaters with little notice.
Don’t make the mistake, however, of letting it slip away without seeing it. A woman with a natural gift for writing and directing, Lemmons knows how to tell a haunting story about family secrets that covers an amazing amount of terrain. Taking an approach as graceful as it is poised, she lingers over her material and images, carefully melding them together to create an elegantly atmospheric period piece that works its own magic.
Visually lush with a marvelous soundtrack, Eve’s Bayou is set in Louisiana’s swampy bayou over the course of one summer in the early 1960s. The locale is named for an African slave woman named Eve who saved Jean-Paul Batiste’s life, was given a piece of land on the bayou in appreciation, and subsequently bore her benefactor 16 children.
Lemmons’ family drama centers around the upper middle-class Batiste family, who are descendants of the fecund Eve. Their story unfolds through the eyes of 10-year-old Eve, played with marvelous naturalness by Jurnee Smollett. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson, who is also the film’s producer) is a doctor and an incorrigible womanizer, but he’s the kind of charmer everyone adores. Eve first witnesses her father’s philandering when she falls asleep in the carriage house and is awakened by her father and the ample-bodied Mrs. Moreau “kissing and rubbing against each other.”
Eve may be a young rascal in a pigtails and overalls, but she’s nobody’s fool. She sees clearly that her father is “playing around with other women,” that he is making her beautiful mother (Lynn Whitfield) “so nervous she keeps cutting her fingers,” and that her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) is unhealthily smitten with their dashing father. Her child’s plan for how to resolve these wrongs real and imagined leads her into the heart of the film’s tragedy.
“Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others indelibly imprinted on the brain,” Lemmons’ script begins with a poetically dramatic voice-over narration set to dream-like images. “The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old.” It’s an opening that immediately grabs your attention. In letting you know from the beginning what happens, Lemmons then sets about explaining why and how the inevitable comes to pass, a task she handles with impressive finesse.
Little secrets leak out: A child overhears her mother saying, “He already has three children. I guess he just took care of it.” She hears her father say of her aunt, “She’s not unfamiliar with the inside of a mental hospital.” Or her aunt confess that in matters of the heart, “I’m not so different my brother.” In the same way, Lemmons slips in the details of foreshadowing. An old voodoo queen sees Eve steal a pineapple, looks deep into her eyes and pronounces the child “a bad girl.” The aunt’s visions, always filmed in stylized black and white, add to the dramatic tension, which culminates in a tragedy as understandable as it is shocking.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Samuel L. Jackson Lynn Whitfield Jurnee Smollett
Lemmons’ story of pain and passion could easily have wandered into the slippery terrain of melodrama, but her touch is so fine, her method so subtle, her characters so well-developed and her cast so skilled that the story stays firmly planted on higher dramatic ground, deriving its power primarily through understatement.
Children think they’re protecting parents and parents think they’re protecting the children, but the irony is that there are no secrets in the Batiste family. They simply choose to remain silent. Eve knows what her father is doing when he claims to be making housecalls. But so does her mother. Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), cursed with the “gift of sight,” knows all, but reprimands her niece for voicing her own suspicions. Cisely knows that Eve is telling the truth about what happened in the carriage house, but she pretends it was something else. They’re protecting not just their mother, whom they revere as a real lady, but their much-adored father.
As their dashing father, Samuel Jackson plays a man so charming that not even his blatant philandering makes him unsympathetic. He adores his wife and children, but he knows he’s just a small town doctor “dispensing aspirin to old ladies.” If a certain type of woman makes him a hero, he plays along because, “Sometimes I need to be a hero.”
A film told primarily from a woman’s point of view, the major characters are the Batiste women Eve, her sister and her mother, their devoted Aunt Mozelle and their Creole-speaking grandmother, whose lives come to revolve around the actions of Louis Batiste.
Lynn Whitfield as the loving and long-suffering wife has a genuine elegance as a woman who fell in love with a man who “fixes things,” but never bargained that he’d break her heart. A young girl eager to be a woman, Cisely is confused by her feelings for her parents. She defies her mother and comforts her father, having no idea of what the effects of her behavior will be.
Eve is the typical mischievous child who taunts her sister and her younger brother and talks back to her parents. She’s jealous of her father’s “sweet indulgence” of Cisely, of the way he dances with her at parties or eagerly greets her when he comes home at night.
Debbi Morgan gives a dazzling performance as the shimmering Aunt Mozelle, who makes a living telling strangers their fortunes and occasionally dabbling in voodoo. A provocatively beautiful woman, she’s been thrice widowed, which makes her the cursed Black Widow to her detractors. Dianne Carroll, an actress we haven’t seen for far too long, has a marvelous time playing an old bayou voodoo queen who is Mozelle’s bitter rival.
Eve’s Bayou has a captivating quality of sanguine sensuality, from its steamy bayou setting to its beautiful women who have a way of moving that is equal part grace and sultriness. Both men and women have a way of speaking that enhances the film’s mood, with their words flowing like honey. It’s all part of the Creole magic Kasi Lemmons so carefully crafts. She’s definitely a talent to watch. Like the memories the narrator describes, Lemmons’ rich film is itself a “marvelous selection of images, some elusive and others indelibly imprinted on the brain.”