Bringing out the Dead in P

‘Forever’ forges a cinematic love story between the world and its most famous cemetery.

Sara Nicole Miller

In 1996, Peruvian-born filmmaker Heddy Honigmann met a 70-year-old woman named Lucia in the middle of a cemetery in Andalusia. She was smoking a cigarette and humming to herself. She remarked to Honigmann that she only smoked when visiting her dead husband in the cemetery.

“Forever”

Directed By: Heddy Honigmann
PLAYING AT: Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. S.E., Minneapolis, www.mnfilmarts.org

That encounter stuck with Honigmann, even prompting her to write the date and nature of their meeting in her notebook of special encounters. Two years later, when she found herself in the legendary Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, she came across a medley of bizarrely beautiful encounters, memoriam trinkets left on graves, and mourners in all their colorful dispositions. She felt so moved that she decided to make a film.

“With Lucia in my heart and the tranquil beauty of Père-Lachaise in my mind, I simply had to make a film that celebrates love and offers a serene perspective on death,” Honigmann says in her artist statement. “A film about how beauty can console, forever.”

Americans often don’t appreciate the antiquity and auratic weight of cemeteries like the rest of the world (most of our cemeteries, however, aren’t hundreds of years old with huge obelisks, sprawling willow trees and iconic long-deceased celebrities). So when a film focused purely on the contemplative beauty of an Old World cemetery comes along, the cinematic voyage attached is often an unfamiliar one.

“Forever” uses Père-Lachaise as its backdrop, the camera feasting its eyes and grazing the gaze over and inside all the nooks, atop the sepultures and onto the facial expressions of folks who visit the cemetery.

“Forever” isn’t just one of those romantic, fuzzy-edged bread baskets of bittersweet nostalgia, even though the spatial love affair between director and cemetery is obvious. The director, in her sweeping quest to capture the decomposing, fragrant memories of cemetery consciousness, moves the camera, much like the wanting eyes or supple hands of a nearby lover. She too wants you – the viewer – to love and appreciate and mourn the cemetery and the dead within it, and perhaps get a little star-struck by both the aura of their artistic lives and the crumbly, earthly essence of their bones.

The Père-Lachaise is perhaps the most famous cemetery in the world – an old, sleepy, tree-lined rock of a cemetery smack in the middle of Paris that serves as a resting place for Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Sadegh Hedayat, among others.

Then there are the characters inside the cemetery who tend to and weep over the famed gravestones. A silver-haired painter who cleans off the gravestones of Marcel Proust and waters his houseplants; a hearty old widow who jokes about how her husband has found a neighbor in Jim Morrison; a South Korean tourist who rhapsodizes about his love for Proust’s prose.

The camera, and Honigmann, seems to carry a fondness for the contemplative exploration of an object remembered or dusted over, whether it be a dying bouquet, commemorative art on a headstone or a gushy tourist’s face. The epitaphs and monologues of the cemetery’s visitors serve as the film’s script.

“Forever” follows no grand scheme and has no real fondness for narrative undertone, which serves as both a liberating opportunity for the living and the dead’s art, and life to expand onscreen. But at times, it seems slightly incoherent, akin to a saucy, one-eyed drunken meander around the cemetery. The art, literature and life-work of the glamorously deceased make their way into the film, always through the lived remembrance of an on-screen interviewee.

Although death truly is all around “Forever,” the documentary never becomes melancholy and oppressive, which is perhaps most stunning. There’s even a light-hearted moment of humor, when the gravestone of the old minx, Oscar Wilde, reveals hundreds of lip-sticked kiss marks. It’s just as much a celebration of the flesh and bone characters who find solace in the cemetery as it is a tribute to the great deceased, and their return to the dust.