Americans don’t go to cemeteries to have a good time. We are not as a rule a contemplative people. Visiting the graves of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand ranks well below NASCAR and Reality TV as our favorite things to do. But in Paris, France, where culture is not a bad word or limited to yogurt, they have the Père Lachaise Cemetery, an elephant’s graveyard of genius and talent.
Consider some of the artists in residence: Guillaume Apollinaire, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Maria Callas, Frédéric Chopin, Delacroix, Max Ernst, Gericault (his The Raft of the Medusa is reproduced on his tomb!), Ingres, Marcel Marceau, Georges Méliès, Modigliani, Moliere, Édith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Seurat, Simone Signoret, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas ( who are buried together and share the same tombstone Gertrude’s name on one side, Alice’s on the other ), Oscar Wilde (his memorial is peppered with kiss-marks ).
If all of that draws a blank, Père Lachaise is the place where Jim Morrison of the Doors is buried. And if Jim Morrison draws a blank, then that shows that fame can be fleeting. If people still come to Jim’s grave 100 years from now... and they might... then he too can join this elite club. It is those people who remember the dead that make the difference and Heddy Honigmann’s sweet film Forever is all about remembering.
Remembering The Living
Though this is a documentary set in a cemetery, it is the living that are the real story in Forever. Honigmann’s method is to show a grave and then the people who come to pay their respects. The Japanese piano student who visits Chopin, the Iranian ex-pat paying his respects to the Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat. The Père Lachaise tour guide whose favorite grave site is of an unknown poet who’s poetry is disappearing as her tombstone falls to pieces. And there is even a mortician who simply comes to be with the dead. It is through their interpretations and explanations that we understand why this pilgrimage has been made.
Of course not everyone buried at Père Lachaise is a star and Honigmann does not neglect the relatives and loved ones of the un-famous who also come to visit. The thing they all have in common is the sustaining remembrances of the visitor for the dead. Some come to leave a flower or some token of respect. There are those who have taken it upon themselves to be caretakers of the grave-sites. Yes some of that is groupie/fan-boy behavior... exceptionalism through proximity... but why not?
Connection to the Past
This cemetery is more than a repository of corpses, it is a touchstone to the past. This is true for all cemeteries. Here lies the body of this or that famous artist or just a loved one and when you stand next to their graves, you are in direct contact with someone who shaped your world. It is a way of being connected to the past. Honigmann dismisses Morrison with an opening sequence showing an overweight American tourist who asks, in fractured French, for the way to Morrions’s grave. It is as if Honigmann is saying, “Yes, Père Lachaise Cemetery is THAT cemetery.” And it really is Honigmann speaking off camera to the American. This snarky swipe at an honest pilgrim is the film’s low point and once we get past that, Forever is a pleasure to watch.
At the center of Forever is the grave of Proust, the author of À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past AKA In Search of Lost Time). Could there be a more appropriate person to be remembered? This is thin ice for the director as Proust is a poster-boy for parodies of egg-headedness. Honigmann neatly dances around this by introducing Stephane Heuet, the man who is making an illustrated narrative (OK, a comic book ) of Remembrance. As an example, we get to see the pages dedicated to the “episode of the madeleine”, Proust’s essay on memory. How French! ... How edgy! ... How cool! I want a copy too.
While writing this review I came across another review written for the New York Times in 2007. That reviewer had panned Forever because of its sentimentality which to them was a priori a bad thing. I wondered if that person was talking about the same film. Were they ignorant of, or just indifferent to history and their place in it? If you really want to know where you are going, it helps to know where you are coming from. Granted the Times reviewer may not give a damp madeleine about where they are going. But if you, like I, can appreciate being connected to your cultural roots, you’ll like Forever. If you care only for your own moment, then this film is not for you.
The interview with director Heddy Honigmann at San Francisco International Film Festival gives some good insight.
Picture And Sound
The film is artfully photographed with in-the-field sound. After all, it is a documentary.
How To Use This DVD
Curl up with a glass of absinthe and a box of tissues.