Many come for their “own” beloved: husbands, wives, family and friends. Others honor “their” artist by leaving behind a personal message or a flower. While admirers share with us the importance of art and beauty in their lives, the graveyard gradually reveals itself as a source of inspiration for the living.
Forever, a film by Heddy Honigmann, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival
Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Forever is making the film festival rounds; I caught it last night at the Riverview Theater as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival. In this film, Honigmann profiles a collection of people with some connection to Pére-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Among these people are a woman who fled Franco’s Spain in the 1940s who tends her husband’s grave, an artist who produced a graphic-novel version of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, a taxi driver who sings Persian songs and visits Sadegh Hedayat’s grave, and a Japanese woman with a deep connection to the spirit of Chopin.
“Forever” is especially striking for its generosity and gentleness. There is no direct commentary from the documentarian; we hear the filmmaker only in a few off-camera questions. The film’s subjects are permitted to have their say, and the camera regards them with respect regardless of what they’re saying. As a result, we experience these people in a very intimate, guileless way.
This means that she sometimes gives people enough rope to hang themselves, or at least enough words to embarrass themselves. There are the ubiquitous tourists looking for Jim Morrison’s grave (and, a continuous visual joke in the film, the graffiti signposts to the Lizard King’s tomb), and the stream of people who visit Proust but have to admit that they haven’t read him. But it also means that Honigmann can elicit moments of sheer beauty: she coaxes the taxi driver to sing a Persian poem, a South Korean student of Proust to explain (in untranslated but clearly heart-felt Korean) what “Remembrance of Things Past” means to him, and an embalmer who visits Modigliani to discuss the importance of faces.
I visited Pére-Lachaise myself eight years ago (see the picture above–that’s me in the blue coat, trying to look all French and stuff; I even got to give directions to Jim Morrison’s grave, in French, to a gaggle of American high school girls). For me, it was the Mur des Fédérés that drew me: even after all the political changes in the world since 1989, there is still something tragic and moving and extremely appealing about the murdered dreams of the 1871 Commune. The film features a ceremony at the Mur des Fédérés, and a montage of the graves and memorials of people who were victims of the Holocaust and heroes of the Resistance. For the most part, though, the focus is on the arts: painters, sculptors, writers, composers.
And in that context, “Forever” is itself a haunting and poetic piece. The camera captures the beauty and decay of the cemetery, the weather-worn statues and tombs, the words that are slowly disappearing for even “etched in stone” doesn’t mean forever. What does last forever, Honigmann seems to suggest, is the need for, the longing for, beauty and memory. Art and love bridge the chasm of death at Pére-Lachaise, as surely as Proust’s madeleine serves as a time machine more powerful than H.G. Wells could ever imagine.
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