For anyone who has had the pleasure of walking through the Père Lachaise but struggled to elucidate its inexplicable appeal, Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Forever is enlightening without being demystifying. Traveling through the labyrinthine avenues of Paris’s famous cemetery, the filmmaker observes people tending to the graves of family members, as well as those of great artists from the past, blending the diverse experiences of her subjects to create a deeply ruminative study of the complicated relationship between the living and the dead and the role of art in life. By the end, she also conveys the sense that our lives are artworks in and of themselves. An artist of the humane, Honigmann communicates this message through her equal consideration of the tombs of famous people and those of people whose lives are barely remembered, like that of a 21-year-old girl whose personal poetry was etched onto her grave by her mother and is now almost completely faded. The part of it that remains speaks so profoundly to our relationship with time it’s easy to see why one Père Lachaise guide in the film is so strongly drawn to the girl’s resting spot.
A young Asian woman tends to the grave of Frédéric Chopin, whose music she plays as a means of maintaining a relationship with her dead father, and Honigmann uses the woman’s tinkling of the ivories as connective tissue—sonic wisps of smoke to adjoin the stories of the people she stumbles across, including a man who works as a taxi driver and dreams of being a performer (he sings before the grave of the great Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat) and an old woman who recalls how she and her husband left Franco-era Spain and its murderous priests behind to come to a country that has loved her like no other. The stiffness to the film’s compositions challenge the idea that Honigmann discovered these people by chance, but there is a startling poetry to their revelations that never feels manufactured. But the filmmaker contrives her own poetry from time to time, asking a South Korean man to voice his affection for the work of Marcel Proust in his native tongue, making it easier for him to express his reverence but refusing to translate his words for us; later she juxtaposes a shot of a man sitting by the grave of Amedeo Modigliani before cutting to an illuminating scene of the man doing the sort of work that might explain his appreciation for the great artist’s unique interpretation of the female form.
Forever merits comparison to Paris Je T’aime, not only because Wes Craven’s shallow contribution to the omnibus film features a couple ending their relationship near Oscar Wilde’s Art Deco tomb, which is famously covered in lipstick kisses. Honigmann’s documentary tells less stories than Paris Je T’aime but has infinitely more to say about love, death, and our inspiring relationship to art, including the movies. In Forever‘s most touching vignette, two blind men make their bumpy way through a Paris street, chatting about the theme music from Jaws before connecting to the pleasures of Les Diaboliques through the evocative voice of Simone Signoret, who is buried inside Père Lachaise alongside Yves Montand. Later, a beautiful older woman recalls the death of her husband, more than 20 years her junior, from a bee sting, a story so floridly bittersweet it suggests a Marquezian magical-realist fiction, and through she still cries for him, she is nonetheless grateful for the three years of happiness he gave her. These and other stories advance the filmmaker’s belief that, while the Père Lachaise may be a place where people are buried, it is also one where people go to live.