The scene in Eve’s Bayou (1997) in which Eve is exposed to her father’s philandering is set up as the Freudian primal scene, both thematically and cinematically. Eve sees her father Louis engaging in sexual relations with Maddie, instantly traumatized by both his infidelity and the shocking violence of the sex act. The scene is repeated throughout the film, as the primal scene is repeated in the psyche, either directly or through phantasms.
The cinematic language presented in the scene supports this notion with its fragmented shots mimicking the free associative nature of psychic interpretation. When Eve enters the basement, she is seen with an oversized flashlight, peaking through wooden structures and stepping past various knickknacks, almost as if with suspicion. Eve’s flashlight brings to mind illumination, discovery, and sight, as the primal scene is a source of a host of discomfiting realizations regarding human nature and the self. According to Freud in his Three Essays, the child is unable to cope with the overstimulating introduction to the world of sexuality and perceives intercourse as sadistic. Aside from its phallic connotation, the heavy flashlight could suggest the weight of the impending scene that will supposedly, in the logic of the film, shape the rest of Eve’s life. At this ripe age, she is unable to handle the complexities of sexuality.
When Eve drifts off to sleep, the camera shifts to a view of the bayou, the lens gliding over the water’s ripples, evoking a sense of calm and sensuality. The shot is ‘the calm before the storm,’ portraying a familiar environment to Eve before it is corrupted with the stain of sexuality. Perhaps this extraneous shot is designed to connote Eve’s dream, a fluid stream of a naive child’s memories, recalling the wet warmth of the womb. The camera’s panning dissolve connects the bayou to Eve herself; the bayou belongs to Eve as our protagonist but also to her namesake, the matriarch of the Batiste clan. Though the narrative conflict is centered around the father, the repeated water imagery supports the notion of the matriarchal struggle for power, as the women fight to reclaim the land and the family.
Eve arises from her sleep, looking confused before shifting to an expression of utter shock. We are presented with the reverse-shot of Louis and Maddie, with the camera zooming in quickly to evoke Eve’s sudden panic at the sight. The camera cuts back to Eve, zooming in on her horrified face. It then cuts to a series of slowed down detail shots, illustrating the associative way in which Eve processes the scene. These shots will be repeated throughout the film as to underscore its importance for Eve’s psychic development and relation to her father. The camera shows a shot of a wine bottle as it is knocked to the ground, possibly connoting the shattering of Eve’s innocence. When Louis becomes aware of Eve’s presence, he turns toward the camera from the shadows and turns on the lightbulb, a recurrence of the flashlight image from the beginning of the scene. The light here is associated with realization for both Louis and Eve that the damage of sight has been done. Louis’ face is positioned half in shadow, perhaps, in the camera’s subjective framework, illustrating Eve’s conflicting view of her father in the moment. This duality carries through the entire film as the primal scene is replayed and reenacted, as Eve comes closer to the decision to order her father’s murder.