How many dead people have you seen in movies? Thousands, yes, but I mean a real dead person, a late being, in a documentary context other than a war newsreel. The impact of one particular sequence in Heddy Honigmann’s Forever, in which a sensitive funeral make-up artist works on the face of a recently deceased, quite beautiful young woman, is intensified by the shock of looking at an actual corpse on screen, especially in comparison to the facile way bodies pile up in fictional films. I have never seen a sequence like it — but then I could say that about a dozen other scenes in this gently extraordinary 2006 film, which comes to DVD this week.
Hongimann’s movie finds lyrical views of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with its thousands of small tombs and well-worn pathways. She also talks to the visitors there. They are strangers who have come to see the graves of the famous (Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Jim Morrison), or they are family members who tend the memorials to their loved ones; Honigmann’s weaving together of their stories becomes a window onto large ideas about death, art, and the urge to memorialize. Among the people she meets are an Iranian taxi driver who can recite the words of his favorite Persian poet, Sadegh Hedayat, and two blind men who, in their fondness for Simone Signoret, get together and ”watch” Diabolique. (Hedayat and Signoret are both buried at Pere Lachaise.) Forever showed just once in Seattle, at the Frye Art Museum in 2008, and I have adapted my introduction of it below. We showed it in connection to an exhibition of Dario Robleto’s art, which creates memorials re-fashioned out of hair, letters, bones, and other unexpected objects.
Forever is made by a Dutch filmmaker, Heddy Honigmann, who is of Polish extraction. Her parents escaped the Holocaust and settled in South America; she was born and raised in Peru, and has lived and worked in Holland for many years. Honigmann’s films have not shown much in Seattle, but they are primarily documentaries: she has made a film about veterans of recent wars who talk about the ways music kept their spirits alive (Crazy) and one about street musicians in Paris who are illegal immigrants (The Underground Orchestra). It sounds as though the concerns of her previous films have culminated in Forever.
Forever is set in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, one of the grandest graveyards in the world. If you have been there, you know that Pere Lachaise is truly a city of the dead, a small metropolis, or necropolis, unto itself, and you will see that part of the interest of the movie is visiting the tombs of the many famous artists and performers who now reside there—and meeting the pilgrims who visit these Holy Grails (raising the question of why we need these celebrities and their art). But Honigmann finds as much poignancy in the non-celebrity denizens and their loved ones, reminding us that mortality is the one thing we really all definitively have in common.
As a companion piece to Dario Robleto’s memorial art, Forever is similarly consumed with the way people hold on to things, especially in clinging to the departed. A graveyard itself is an elaborate refusal to let go, and for the mourners in the film—some of whom have been at it for many years—that impulse expresses itself in rituals, whether it is washing off a grave marker with water or delivering flowers. The film creates a sense of distance from its mourners with its calm, objective flow, whereas you could say that Robleto’s work creates a similar distance by his use of objects whose substance might not be immediately apparent to us, and his turning those objects into re-imagined memento mori. But both artwork and film become very moving, in the act of creating a new permanent memorial—one that outlasts death itself—that is, the film or the artwork.
The cinema itself is one of the world’s great graveyards, a method of suspending death; through it we can hear the voices of artists who are long gone and watch the exquisite movements of people who have been dead for a half-century. Thus Pere Lachaise is a most fitting subject for a film treatment, and a wonderful microcosm for revealing the behavior of human beings as both meaningful and absurd.