Like most memorable cinematic upscales, Eve's Bayou finds itself in a precariously balanced world, cascading between realism and mystical fantasy. From the beginning of this journey in which the waters of the bayou reflect and destory the surrounding images nothing is quite what appears to be.
This certainly includes Kasi Lemmons' debut as writer and director. Lemmons, best known for a supporting role in The Silence of the Lambs, shows a remarkable maturity and grace in fashioning a tale that could have easily retread familiar depths.
Even the beginning, in which Eve Batiste claims "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old," seems to indicate that Eve's Bayou will follow the tired trail of Southern Gothic. Yet like all memories, the narrator's claims may not contain the absolute truth.
The father is Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced the film), a moderately successful colored doctor releated to the isolated Louisiana bayou. It is the who must die, yet to view the story in the context of the inevitable death does an injustice to the film. There are larger forces at work and greater issues that elevate the film above the presupposed tragedy.
In fact, Eve's Bayou is not about him, but of the women in his family. His wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield), fearful of her husband's infidelity, holds the Batiste family under a tight watch. She overpowers her daughters, Cisely (Meagan Good) and Eve (Jurnee Smollett), although the strength of her convictions may not be entirely rational. His sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), the emotional center of the family, is a healer of a different sort. While Louis safely inhabits the bounds of modern society, Mozelle is a clairvoyant who secretly tends to others through voodoo. She can sense others' secrets through mere touch, and her visions provide what little truth the family can grasp.
Voodoo is an omnipresent force in Eve's Bayou, one that imbues the film with a mysticism that balances the inherent realism with an aura of dark fantasy. Lemmons implicitly contrasts the rational Louis, whose concerns are limited to those of the modern world, with the spiritual Mozelle. The practice of voodoo plays a natural role within the Batiste family. The adolescent Cisely rejects the practice to assert her authority, while Eve gradually learns to grasp Mozelle's clairvoyance.
Voodoo becomes one facet of a complex family dynamic that Lemmons paints with a startling accuracy. Roz uses it to justify her tight hold over her children, even confining them to the house when faced with a dire prophecy. Mozelle, tending to her wounds after the death of her three husbands, considers herself cursed.
The entire cast shines in their roles. Whitfield's piercing eyes and precise manner embody an unwavering perfection. As subtle variations on another set of Southern siblings, Good and Smollett recall the Finch children from To Kill a Mockingbird. Smollett, in particular, deftly handles Eve's gradual evolution. While gaining a grasp of her powers, she still remains a believable innocent.
Samuel L. Jackson also does well in a smaller role. His character is essentially a more complex turn on Danny Glover's cruel husband in The Color Purple, largely because his story is seen from the perspective of a child who both loves and distrusts him. Although unfaithful to his wife, Louis Batiste is a devoted father simply unable to control his appetites. The skewed perspective on Louis brings in significant questions about ultimate truths.
But the film ultimately belongs to Debbi Morgan's clairvoyant Mozelle. Her struggles against her mystic powers and those of her rival Elzora (Diahann Carroll) confirm her worst fear, that her past memories confirm her destiny. She is the film's tragic heroine, convinced after the death of her three husbands that she is cursed.
Lemmons frequently manipulates memory to illustrate its unpredictability. In an early scene, Eve recounts finding their father with another woman to her skeptical sister. As Cisely tells a revised version of the story, she and Eve step into the tale, calling into question the validity of Eve,s original version. As with everything else in the film, the flashbacks in Eve's Bayou are fallible. We so often accept flashbacks and other such dramatic devices as literal fact; in Eve's Bayou, nothing is so concrete.
These memories frequently return to haunt the members of the Batiste family. The film's most powerful scene finds Mozelle telling the tale of her first husband's murder to the curious Eve. The voice of her husband echoes over hers as Mozelle steps into the scene, which is presented through a mirror. The audience watches Eve as she watches Mozelle participating in her own story. The film dissolves the boundaries of time and place, involving both the characters and the audience in the same story.
Directorial flourishes such as these elevate Eve's Bayou and bolster the story. The film is a collection of indelibly etched images, from the casual falling of a hat to a spider weaving its web. But Lemmons and cinematographer Amy Vincent never allow visual flair to obscure the story. Lemmons uses these tricks sparingly in favor of understated, poetic imagery.
And despite the tragic horror that marks Eve's Bayou, the film even contains moments of macabre absurdity involving the end result of Mozelle's prophecies. Lemmons, perhaps inspired by the morbid wit of The Silence of the Lambs, brings a sly humor to seemingly inappropriate moments.
The film finds humor in tragedy, truth in mysticism and fiction in fact. And when it reaches its powerful conclusion, Kasi Lemmons leaves no simple answers to the questions she poses. In the end nothing is certain, except for the intensity found in the depths of Eve's Bayou.