Eye’s Bayou and the Primal Cinema

One of the recurring questions in our discussion of Eve’s Bayou (as, indeed, has been recurrent throughout this course) was that of the possibility of a female gaze, cf. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which, as we know, leaves this issue to the side. Eve’s Bayou presents a pattern of viewing largely novel in our consideration of issues of psychoanalysis and cinema, via the black femme seer figures who help the spectator (as well as characters within in the film) make sense of sequences that don’t easily lend themselves to interpretation. In “Reflections on Black Femme,” Keeling describes these sequences in terms of Deleuze’s concept of the “‘any-space-whatever’ wherein viewers (and Eve and Mozelle) see what Deleuze has identified as cinematic time, a present that passes and a past which is preserved” (Keeling 152). This impossible temporality afforded by cinema is exactly the temporality that characterizes Eve’s Bayou, both the place and the eponymous film: in the vein of the original totemic clan’s internalization and endless repetition of the original Oedipal sin and the guilt that results in Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” Eve’s Bayou is too gripped by a psyche-like determining structure across generations, one which stems from the original primal scene between Eve and Jean Batiste. The narrative of the film posits an inescapable compulsion for all of “Eve’s children” to repeat this ambiguously described, quasi-incestuous primal scene throughout the history of Eve’s Bayou, the repetition of which necessarily reenacts the enslavement that preceded the original act: like Deleuze’s cinematic time, the present passing, the past eternally preserved.

Keeling identifies two different logics at play in the film – the one, that of bourgeois sociality, of paternal order, embodied chiefly by Louis and his socially recognized success and rejection of alternative systems of logic; and the other, that of precisely these alternative systems of logic that Louis rejects, most notably voodoo, embodied chiefly by Mozelle and her wisdom that runs counter to Louis’s “common sense”. The two primary registers of viewing in the film, then – that of linear, narrative time and that of the “any-space-whatever” of Eve and Mozelle’s visions – run parallel to these two logics at play. The relationship between the two is, as Keeling points out, “inimical” (151): Eve and Mozelle’s visions “are the images frequently called forth to provide bourgeois sociality with an irrational ‘other'” (151) against which their systems of logic are defined and upheld. Accordingly, Eve’s Bayou presents us with an opportunity to conceive of a female gaze via exactly these “any-spaces-whatever,” whose sole producers and interpreters – seers – are female, and whose logic diametrically opposes that of the masculine order of conventional cinema. Keeling doesn’t identify the pattern of viewing that Eve and Mozelle exhibit as that of the female gaze, however; while femininity is an essential component of their identity concerning their seer abilities, Keeling foregrounds their race alongside their femininity, writing of their role in upholding the “black femme function” of pointing to the out-of-frame: “With one foot in an aporia and one foot in the set of what appears, the black femme currently is a reminder that the set of what appears is never perfectly closed… the black femme, while a product of [what appears], also might be a portal to a reality that does not operate according to the dictates of the visible and the epistemological, ethical, and political logics of visibility” (143).

Returning to Mulvey, we might say that Eve and Mozelle’s black femme function, particularly as expressed via the recurrent pattern of vision followed by narration (without which latter the former would be unintelligible) is the closest thing to a constitutively female gaze offered by our studies thus far; it’s a pattern of viewing completely unavailable to the male figures in the film, and one which exists in diametrical, “inimical” opposition to the bourgeois sociality with which these male figures are associated. However, just as Eve’s Bayou “is not capable of setting into motion another form of sociality” (158) insofar as it relies on common sense patterns of narrative closure which necessarily restrict the alternative sociality towards which the black femme motions, this female gaze is born out of the dominant cinematic structure that constitutes the bulk of the film and upon which the spectator relies to make sense of it. In this sense, Eve’s Bayou‘s effort to create an alternative cinema is itself a repetition of the “primal cinema” from which it descends; like the black femme, it must have one foot in each space, gesturing towards the out-of-frame but doing so already from halfway within, and thus reenacting the norms of cinematic hegemony from which it seeks in some degree to deviate. The parallel might be drawn thus to the very relationship between Eve and Louis’ narrative and that of Eve and Jean Batiste: in consummating the Oedipal-qua-murderous desire to kill the father and break free of his rule, the filmmakers, like Eve, find themselves in the perennial “now what” on which the film closes, ultimately upholding the father’s rule via both the grief Eve and Cisely exhibit for their father (which, if “Totem and Taboo” is any indication, is itself bound to be repeated for infinite generations to come, and is itself only a repetition of the band of brothers’ original parricide), and the return to dominant cinematic norms which characterizes this ending. Eve’s Bayou‘s model of the female gaze thus has “one foot in” the dominant and thus associatively male patterns of cinematic construction on which the film ultimately relies, raising the question of the extent to which the female gaze might ever succeed in a rupture from the primal cinema, and whether the past that is this dominant cinema might nevertheless be “eternally preserved” in whatever offshoots it begets.