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Eve's Bayou (The Criterion Collection)
Oktay Ege Kozak
Early on in Eve's Bayou, the impressionable and innocent ten-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett) witnesses his highly respected doctor father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) clearly having sex with a woman who's not Eve's mother. After the shock of her discovery wears off, Eve tells her early teens sister Cisely (Meagan Good) about what she saw. Cicely, afraid that the happy family front that this affluent family projects to their New Orleans community and convinced that no matter what Louis does, he still loves their mother, tells Eve that Louis and the other woman were just drunk and having harmless fun.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons goes as far as recreating the event from Cicely's perspective showing just that, innocent fun, and Eve also becomes part of this newly minted false memory. The ruse works and Eve believes Cisely. It's easy for the audience to ask how this girl who just saw what happened an hour ago can have a brand new and fabricated memory of it so easily. But that's the visceral quality of Lemmons' introspective and haunting exploration of what memory truly means.
Later in Eve's Bayou, more disturbing realities about Louis' conduct with other women come to light, enough to almost break apart this family and make it more and more impossible for Eve to discard what she had truly seen. This ongoing paranoia in the young girl, compounded by the heap of secrecy that the adults surround her with, leads to a massive misunderstanding that ends up in tragedy.
Or is it a misunderstanding, since if what Eve thinks happened really happened, is there any way back from such evil? This ambiguity and Lemmons' dedication to sticking to her themes is what makes Eve's Bayou such a special bit of southern gothic drama. Like the protagonist, we are haunted by the past, even if we don't really know what happened in it, and that's how memories work. They are images that our minds project into us.
The performances from the young and old cast are spectacular and everyone brings their A-game. It's also refreshing to see such a drama about an affluent black family where there isn't a plotline that explores white-on-black racism or even the fact that the characters are black in the first place.
It's a story about the black community in New Orleans during the mid-20th Century, to the point where the richness of the culture seeps into every frame expertly by Lemmons. But as opposed to a lot of mainstream Hollywood stories about black people at the time, it was a fresh change of pace in 1997.
Eve's Bayou is awash in southern gothic New Orleans locations, full of muted colors that bring about a haunting tone that perfectly fits the story. Criterion's 1080p transfer from a 4K restoration does the gorgeous cinematography justice by capturing these colors without blowing them up or smoothing the natural grain through digital scrubbing. It's a demo-worthy presentation.
We get a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track that covers the original sound mix of the film. The swamp locations that surround the main house in the narrative are filled with ambient sounds across the surround speaks that make the audience feel like they're in New Orleans.
Spike Lee regular Terence Blanchard's score, which finds the perfect times to gear up from a peaceful jazz tone to a stress-inducing cornucopia of woodwind instruments, creates a solid dynamic range across all channels.
Theatrical Cut: The first disc comes with the director's cut of the film, which is the version Lemmons wants audiences to see. The major difference between the two cuts is the addition of an extra character, whose existence eventually adds a new and important layer to the mysteries of the story. The theatrical cut on the second disc seems to be culled from the same restoration and transfer with the extra moments cut out.
Commentary: This commentary from Lemmons, from the film's 2002 DVD release, offers a good amount of information about the production. But bear in mind that it's a scene-specific commentary so there are some quiet moments.
Dr. Hugo: A short film by Simmons that lays the groundwork for Eve's Bayou, since it's about a frisky doctor who makes house calls to lonely women.
Kasi Lemmons: This new interview with Lemmons goes into great detail about her influences and her journey to becoming a filmmaker.
Cast Reunion: A one-hour reunion from 2021 that brings the cast and crew together for the New Orleans Film Festival. A gem for those who want to find out how the cast views the film and its legacy.
Terence Blanchard: A series of conversations between the composer and Lemmons about the force of the score in the film.
We also get Photo Albums.
Eve's Bayou is both a sprawling southern gothic drama about a large family and the various sub-plots that explores them with great empathy, and an intensely focused and haunting thriller about the untrustworthiness of memory. Criterion's transfer does the film justice in order to bring this seminal work to a new audience.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com