Eve's Bayou
directed by Kazi Lemmons
(Trimark, 1997)

Louis Batiste is a man "who can fix anything." Anything, it seems, but his own marriage.

That's ironic, because it's Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson) who broke it, with lots of help from the women in the Louisiana parish where he practices medicine.

Batiste is a descendant of Gen. Jean Paul Batiste and a slave woman named Eve who, legend has it, cured the general of cholera. In return, Eve received her freedom, 16 of the general's offspring and a plot in the bayous where everyone in the parish now comes to wash out their dirty laundry.

But Eve's Bayou is less the story of Dr. Batiste than of his daughter, also an Eve (Jurnee Smollett), who opens the film with a startling statement: "The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old."

After that, the audience is ready for just about anything; in Eve's Bayou, they get it.

The bayou in question is a psychological swamp, where the nastiest things bubble to the surface at the worst possible times. Most of them involve Louis, who's as smooth as the swamp itself. But there are plenty of other colorful characters to go around.

There's Eve's Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a "psychic counselor" who's buried more men than most undertakers; Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), whose love for her father knows no bounds until she lets it get out of bounds; and town tart Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson), a well-rounded woman who has the doctor's eye, not to mention several other body parts.

Their constant crisscrossings and shifting alliances make Eve's Bayou a kind of complex screen novel, a personal War & Peace in which, for all the fortune tellers at work, it's hard to guess what's going to happen next.

At times it can be a hard film to watch.

For all its lighter moments, it has an ominous tone, reinforced by the high-contrast, black-and-white, quick-cut montages used to capture Mozelle's psychic visions. Lots of bad things happen to its good people, and catastrophe is never far off: violent death is a way of life in the Louisiana outback.

But Eve's Bayou has other things to offer as well, like good dialogue from the mouths of perceptive characters. Witness Mozelle's confession to young Eve: "Sometimes I feel like I've lost so much I have to find new things to lose."

Eve's part is just as well written: "Memory is the selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain," she tells viewers in the opening and ending scenes. It's a theme -- and a warning -- that bears repeating.

It's impressive stuff, and even more impressive given that Eve's Bayou is the first bigscreen writing and directing effort of actress Kasi (Fear of a Black Hat) Lemmons.

Lemmons has the advantage of working with some outstanding performers, such as Jackson, who's maddeningly slick as the doctor who's not going to take his hand out of the cookie jar no matter who catches him and how, and Morgan, who brings intelligence and depth to the character of the psychic with a window onto everyone's problems but her own.

But in the end, it's Lemmons' show -- it's her selection of images. And none of them is elusive. Eve's Bayou is one treatise on memory you'll never forget.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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