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'Eve's Bayou' a remarkable directing debut

TORONTO -- Kasi Lemmons was Jodie Foster's roommate in "The Silence of the Lambs," and she was the doomed researcher in "Candyman," and one of Nicolas Cage's victims in "Vampire's Kiss." I mention these credits because they are from another, earlier life; Lemmons emerged at this year's Toronto Film Festival as one of today's most gifted young American writer-directors.

Her "Eve's Bayou," which had its premiere at an opening weekend gala here, is one of the best films of the year - elegant, sensuous, haunting. It's the story of a Louisiana family and its secrets, with supernatural undertones; Tennessee Williams has been evoked in reviews, but it reminded me in ways of Ingmar Bergman's later family dramas, with their fathers, distant and mysterious, and their women confiding and conspiring, and their children interpreting everything in their own ways.

The film is one of the big successes here, one everyone mentions when talking about the festival's discoveries. Lemmons wrote the screenplay, which is told through the eyes of a young girl named Eve (Jurnee Smollett), whose opening narration tells us, "I was 10 the summer I killed my father." But if and how she killed him are questions the movie only gradually answers.

Unlike a lot of first films, which are overeager to impress, "Eve's Bayou" is serenely confident. The story introduces us to Eve's father, a successful, womanizing physician (Samuel L. Jackson), and her long-suffering but loving mother (Lynn Whitfield), and her aunt, in some ways the movie's most complex character, brilliantly played by Debbi Morgan, who is a very accurate psychic and "not unfamiliar with the inside of a mental hospital."

The film is set largely in and around a large house in bayou country, which Lemmons and her cinematographer, Amy Vincent, paint in dreamy, sometimes scary detail: There is one extraordinary shot in which a mirror is used to blend past and present, and others in which flashbacks show how emotional shock can be remembered in different ways.

Lemmons (whose first name is pronounced like "Casey") is married to the actor and director Vondie Curtis-Hall, whose own directorial debut, the dynamic and funny "Gridlock'd," with Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth, came out earlier this year. They represent a lot of talent under one roof. "Eve's Bayou" will represent a marketing challenge, because the Creole and voodoo material will suggest it's a genre picture - when in fact it's a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination as best picture.

My hotel concierge was back on duty today. "I took off three days and saw 11 films," she said. The woman sitting in front of me at a cafe this afternoon was a travel agent who has taken off a week and is clocking four films a day.

The film festival preoccupies Toronto. Maybe it's because almost all the theaters are along the major subway lines, and maybe it's because Toronto has the highest per-capita movie attendance in North America. Films unspool in some 16 theaters, from the vast Roy Thompson Hall to the funky little Backstage twins. Moviegoers all seem to be carrying liters of water, in case they're stranded in line. There are parties every night, and you know you're at a hot one when one of the gate-crashers is Mick Jagger, in town to rehearse for the upcoming Rolling Stones tour.

Why does Toronto have a festival like this and Chicago, which got a 10-year head start, doesn't? Maybe it's because the city and provincial governments have sunk millions of dollars into support and subsidies and seen their investment grow into a global tourist attraction. No movie festival can turn a profit on its income alone, but in Canada they think about the spillover effect. "The festival," the maitre d' at Bistro 990 told me last night, "is a lovely time to be in the restaurant business."

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