Inside the gates of the Parisian graveyard, breezes ruffle the leaves of chestnut trees, pigeons scatter in a fluttering of wings and sun-dappled stone paths wind from plot to plot. This particular spring afternoon, each grave seems home to a bouquet. The occasional visitors step in and speak softly, reverently. A young woman approaches, carrying a single white rose.
“Uh, excuse me,” she says, looking lost. “Tombe de… Jim Morrison?”
Visitors to Pere Lachaise Cemetery — and viewers of Heddy Honigmann’s 2006 documentary “Forever” — may well recognize this scene. The cemetery is vast, the largest and most famous in Paris, but a multitude of visitors congregate in one spot: speckled with petals and encircled by candles, Jim Morrison’s headstone seems less a gravesite than the mouth of a river of ’60s rock enthusiasts. Rogue carvings of “Jim” on other people’s tombs become a running joke throughout the film. However loyal his fan base, though, The Doors’ frontman is by no means the biggest name here. Frederic Chopin’s last resting place can be found just a moment’s stroll away, and Edith Piaf has a well-kept memorial at the opposite end of the park.
Despite its solemn setting, “Forever” doesn’t dwell on death. For the filmmaker and many of her subjects — including a Proust-loving cartoon artist, a soft-spoken graveyard tour guide and a pianist preparing for an important concert — Pere Lachaise becomes a garden of recollections, perfuming present-day existence with joys and sorrows from beyond the grave. Honigmann takes man-on-the-street style filmmaking and gives it a gentle, moving twist: she explores the reason each interviewee has come to the cemetery — not the practical reason (to visit a departed loved one or celebrity), but the spiritual reason, the one most closely related to art.
“What is the heart of Chopin?” Honigmann asks the pianist who places flowers on the composer’s grave. “Why did you leave your country?” she inquires of the Franco-Iranian taxi driver who pays his respects to writer Sadegh Hedayat. Her questions, never superficial or repetitive, transform camera-shy strangers into quotable philosophers. Or, in some cases, jesters: “We’re neighbors,” jokes an elderly woman whose late spouse is buried near the tomb of Jim Morrison. “He doesn’t give us any trouble.”
Not everyone walks into a graveyard and hears the siren-song of a thousand artists’ muses. Yet what makes this documentary remarkable is not its ability to convey that siren-song with its finely tuned tribute to the cemetery’s luminaries. Nor is it the Chopin nocturne that drifts into play at seemingly the perfect moments. It’s the attention and respect the filmmaker accords the so-called ordinary people Pere Lachaise attracts. Names and titles never appear in the lower thirds of their frames, but each individual — from the well-dressed matron who reads the newspaper aloud to a loved one’s tombstone, to the chatty older woman who scrubs pollen and grime off all the inscriptions — stars in her own mini-movie, featuring a bittersweet remembrance, a witty one-liner and a sampling of what inspires her. Heddy Honigmann ensures that, long after the credits have rolled, viewers will remember these individuals’ words and stories, continue to engage with them and, through one medium or another, pass them on.
A title as vague as “Forever” invites myriad interpretations, but the cartoonist who illustrates Proust offers a strong contender. “Just go to the Louvre,” he insists, when the conversation turns to Leonardo Da Vinci, “and you’ll find four Cubans, 10 Chinese, 15 Dutch and 20 French people all staring at the gaze of a woman who’s returned to dust. The painter is no longer with us, but both continue to move us. Isn’t that eternity? Isn’t that the power of art?”