While a recent slate of American fiction film directors, including Lance Hammer, Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt, grab the public’s imagination on these shores by making the intricacies of everyday life riveting onscreen, Lima-born/Rome-educated/Amsterdam-residing director Heddy Honigmann is quietly doing the same in documentary form with Forever, just released on DVD (click title for more information) to coincide with her latest work, Oblivion, premiering at Film Forum. Who would have thought that a slow-paced, poetic meditation on France’s famed Père-Lachaise cemetery could be so edge-of-your-seat engrossing?
It’s a testament to skills that go beyond that of a filmmaker, though Honigmann’s mastery of craft is abundantly clear in the fixed and methodical camerawork that floats about the Père-Lachaise grounds like an inquisitive spirit (yet keeps a respectful long and medium shot distance from its visitors), and in editing that alternates meticulously composed frames of the gorgeous graves with straightforward interviews with the living who together make up the cemetery “community.” But what sets Honigmann wholly apart is her childlike curiosity, her ability to actively listen, her bravery in not having a story to tell, but a story to find. This is fearless filmmaking at its finest.
Because Honigmann is in a constant state of discovery, the audience becomes captivated as well. In lieu of the final resting place of Jim Morrison—who is only referenced by an old woman visiting her late husband (“He’s with Jim Morrison now!” she wryly exclaims) and via an apropos shot of “The End” scrawled on a headstone before the end credits—Honigmann visits the gravesite of an Iranian writer. There the director gets an immigrant cab driver to sing a Persian tune for her after delivering an in-depth monologue on the author’s importance to Iran and to him personally as an artist. Innocently and non-intrusively she asks one elderly lady about her beloved husband, and is treated to the woman’s vivid and frighteningly immediate recollections of fleeing from Franco and her Spanish homeland, how that experience caused her to give up on religion because it taught her that “a priest can kill.” Honigmann even expands her view beyond the cemetery, following one visitor all the way to the Louvre where she discusses a portrait by Ingres of a girl who died and is buried near the master painter at the cemetery. “The form takes precedence over reality,” she says of the picture. Honigmann herself is not afraid to penetrate through those layers that make up images.
It is the filmmaker’s profound humanity that not only gives her work a quality of magical realism, but allows her to connect with her living subjects—as deeply as they, in turn, connect with the dead whose spirits are alive and well. Through the living, she’s able to visualize the essence of Chopin who lives on in the heart of the Asian pianist who visits his grave, practically allowing us to see the composer’s soul light up her face as she channels him through her fingertips during a recital. With breathtaking openness, Honigmann asks, “What did your father love?” to an Armenian woman who’s been cleaning her dad’s gravesite every week for nearly ten years. The revelations to be unearthed at Père-Lachaise have a vital living quality; the man whose “tear ducts are blocked,” and who rhapsodizes at Modigliani’s grave about the importance of faces to the work of his inspiration, just happens to be an embalmer.
Lacking any preconceived notions the director blindly follows two blind men home to listen to “Les Diaboliques” before visiting the grave of Simone Signoret, and later trails another gent to hear of how his hatred of Proust turned to love, and finally into a passion for creating graphic novels of his books. With the same intimacy of the cemetery guide who touches the last time-faded remnants of an unknown writer’s poetry (which are inscribed in the granite of her tomb), Honigmann reaches out to her subjects both living and dead. “True life is art,” the Proust fan says to Honigmann’s lens. It’s this life force that continues to give art its power to move us long after the artist’s own life has gone. Through art, emotional connection springs eternal.