Southern gothic

Kasi Lemmons’ spellbinding 1997 debut ‘Eve’s Bayou’ joins The Criterion Collection

Criterion Collection

“Memory is the selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread, each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture. And the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.”

So opens and closes Eve’s Bayou, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons’ evocative exploration of the chasms spanning truth and perception. The words come courtesy of Eve (Tamara Tunie in voiceover, Jurnee Smollett on the screen). The Eve we see is 10, but the Eve narrating is older and perhaps wiser. She might even know the truth behind what happened the summer she killed her father.

Set in 1962, Louisiana, Eve’s Bayou unfolds like a ghost story, with past deeds haunting several characters. There’s Mozell (Debbi Morgan), Eve’s aunt who has buried three husbands, while Eve’s mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), tries to hold on to hers. He is Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), the town doctor, and his specialty is making house calls. Everyone seems to know what Louis is up to, but that doesn’t stop anyone from loving him — particularly his two daughters, Cisely (Meagan Good) and Eve.

The whole cast is solid, including Diahann Carroll as the local fortune teller, but the movie belongs to Eve, a headstrong girl in the Scout Finch vein who wants to understand why the world of adults is so very different from hers. Lemmons and cinematographer Amy Vincent render these moments in stories and phantom images appearing in mirrors. In one, Mozell tells Eve how she lost the husband who loved her most. In another, Eve and Cisely reconsider an event from a second perspective. Was it really as bad as Eve thinks, or did she just misunderstand what she saw? The legendary movie producer Robert Evans had a line for moments like these: “There are three sides to every story: My side, your side and the truth.”

Newly restored and available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, Eve’s Bayou was Lemmons’ first outing as a writer/director, and it’s one of the most assured American debuts in the last four decades. From the swampy locations to Karyn Wagner’s sumptuous costuming, Eve’s Bayou cast a spell over viewers, first through story, then through lament. The film provides space for these characters to express what they want and reflect on what they’ve lost. And what they’ve learned in between. 

In the movie’s best scene, Mozell talks to Eve about what it all means. As she speaks, she sees her three deceased husbands emerge from the moss-draped canopy of the swamp: “All I know is there must be a divine point to it all that’s just over my head. And when we die, it will all come clear. We’ll say, ‘So that was the damn point.’ And sometimes I think there’s no point at all, and that’s the point. All I know is that most people’s life is a great disappointment to them. And that no one leaves this earth without knowing terrible pain. And if there is no divine explanation at the end of it all, well, that’s sad.” 

ON SCREEN: Eve’s Bayou will be released on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on October 25.


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