Paris is not the world’s friendliest burg, as movies like Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris make clear. Yet it has long served as a city of refuge for artists, writers, politicians, and other troublesome types. Many of them fled to Paris and never left: They hold court in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, permanent home to Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin, Amedeo Modigliani, and Jim Morrison. Native legends rest there too, among them: Marcel Proust, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Méliès, and Yves Montand, whose tombs draw devotees from around the globe. These dead celebrities and their living celebrants are the subject of Forever, Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann’s terrific new documentary.
Encountering an odd Iranian émigré at the grave of his favorite Farsi author, Sadegh Hedayat, Honigmann explains that she’s making “a film about the importance of art in life.” Since at this point the movie’s thematic reach has not yet been established, the director’s description seems disingenuous; it seems likely she’s inflating the project’s sweep to see what kind of response she’ll get. But she’s telling the truth. Honigmann, who has movingly considered the power of music, exile, and memory in such documentaries as 1998’s The Underground Orchestra and 1999’s Crazy, is not conducting a random, celebrity-centered survey. There are a few women here who attend to their husbands’ tombs, there’s a cemetery tour guide who discusses changing customs of death, and there are views of monuments to deported Jews who were murdered far from their Paris homes. Still, most of the film’s participants visit the cemetery not for friends or relatives, at least not directly. They come to hail the buried artists and their enduring work.
The pilgrimages are personal, although not necessarily in ways that can be easily explained. The Proust contingent includes a Frenchman who was so impressed with Remembrance of Things Past that he undertook the seemingly impossible task of a graphic-novel adaptation, and a Korean admirer who says he can only do justice to the author’s mastery in his own (unsubtitled) language. Japanese pianist Yoshino Kimura plays Chopin for the music’s own sake but also in memory of her late father. Iranian-born taxi driver and singer Reza Khoddam appreciates the beauty of Hedayat’s writing yet identifies as well with his life as an expatriate.
Not all the tributes are heavy. Morrison and Montand were pop artists, of course, and it’s hard to be stuffy when commemorating a playful filmmaker like the pioneering Méliès, whose work is represented here by an early special-effects short in which he appears to juggle his own head. Proust, Ingres, and Chopin, being more high-toned, threaten to draw prissier accolades, but not in Forever, which prefers individual rapport to professorial judgments. Honigmann allows emotion to build by letting moments draw out; she holds the camera on Kimura’s face as she performs and waits patiently as Khoddam, who declared himself unprepared to sing, convinces himself to chant a Persian poem. The camera records the moment, yet the singer looks as if he’s performing purely for himself.
Even the one person who’s seen working with a fresh corpse, embalmer David Pouly, is inspired by a bygone artist, Modigliani. Such serendipitous links may explain why Honigmann never calls in experts on Père-Lachaise’s famed inhabitants; she’s more interested in individual responses than accepted wisdom. One of the ways that literature, music, and painting show their importance in life is by inspiring eccentric responses and unexpected flowerings. Forever shows how, long after its creators’ deaths, art enters a fertile public domain.