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Grave Thoughts

by Stuart Klawans

Everybody in Heddy Honigmann's documentary Forever visits the dead, but nobody grieves. As the characters come and go in the principal setting--Paris's Père-Lachaise Cemetery--they stroll, relax on benches, scrub the marble or even sing, and the air remains clear and mild for them, as if Honigmann had made time pause at 10 o'clock on a spring morning. In the trees' shade, a speck of life shines on weathered stone: a ladybug creeping across a graveside sculpture. Views of incised symbols fill the screen, one after another, alongside rows of letters, some formally chiseled, some scrawled by a passing hand: random pages, you'd think, in an illustrated book of consolation.

Which of the dead do the living come to see? Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, the husband of an elderly Spanish woman, Maria Callas, Georges Méliès, Amadeo Modigliani, an Armenian man who designed shoes, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, a forgotten poet of the nineteenth century, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Auguste Ingres and, repeatedly, Jim Morrison (though his many admirers never seem to get to him). Sometimes, little more than curiosity has drawn the visitors. "Have you read his books?" asks Honigmann, unseen behind the camera, of a group of French people paying their respects to Proust. The reply comes with a shrug: "It takes a lot of time to read À la recherche." More often, though, the people Honigmann encounters feel they share something with the dead. They show it by offering gifts: a pen for Proust (so he can go on writing), a lipstick kiss for Oscar Wilde, a flower in Poland's colors for Chopin. They also talk about thi! s bond, telling Honigmann of their losses.

"Why did you leave Iran?" she asks a lanky middle-aged man whom she's found by the tomb of the writer Sadegh Hedayat. The man thinks for a moment, then quotes a passage from Hedayat's The Blind Owl, about going abroad because of weariness with other people. "I was also a bit tired of everything," the man says of Iran, with a sad grin that tells more. And now that he's in Paris, how does he make his living? He drives a taxi--"but my real reason for living, what keeps me alive, is singing Persian classical music." Will he sing something now? No, the man says. It's not the time or place; but Honigmann waits, with the camera running. No, the man says again, trying not to look at her. His voice isn't warmed up; but Honigmann still waits, pulling in for a tighter shot. "What would you like me to sing?" he asks at last. Sitting next to Sadegh Hedayat, the taxi driver takes out his notebook, chooses a poem by Hafez and begins to sigh and sob the lines, and his mournful cry continues! even after Honigmann has cut from him to a detail of a memorial statue: the face of a shrouded woman, weeping into her hand.

From this small episode, you may begin to understand that the encounters in Forever aren't random at all, even though they're as unforced as the rustling of the leaves. So many of the subjects Honigmann chooses, such as Hedayat and the taxi driver, are people who have left home: the elderly widow who fled Madrid during the civil war; the young man from South Korea who found time to read À la recherche (but can't explain why it means so much to him, unless he says it in Korean); pianist Yoshino Kimura, of Japanese ancestry, who plays Chopin (another expatriate) in memory of her father. Like the taxi driver, these people have come to Père-Lachaise to feel closer to someone, most often a celebrated artist; and yet the monuments in these quiet lanes, like the visitors' favorite artworks, represent only what's gone.

"This is the tomb that moves me most of all," says Bertrand Beyern, a white-haired man who gives tours of Père-Lachaise, as he stands beside the memorial to Elisa Mercoeur. When Mercoeur died at age 26, in 1835, her mother had her poems inscribed on the gravestone. They were to be her immortality. "But now," Beyern says, "it's completely faded." The camera lingers over a pitted surface, haunted by the ghosts of indecipherable letters. "Soon there won't be much left but a few broken stones."

Forever is an essay about how people may abide with such loss--seeking it out, savoring it, instead of turning away. If they were artists, perhaps they played with absence, as Georges Méliès did. (Honigmann cannily represents him through one of his trick films, in which he showed himself juggling with his severed head.) If something is continually missing from their lives--the sense of sight, for example--they may make an art out of making do. (Two blind men, visitors to the grave of Simone Signoret, return home with a DVD of Les Diaboliques, which they listen to with chortling, speculative delight.) As for Honigmann herself: Toward the end of Forever, she demonstrates how a filmmaker may do well to cling to the little she's given, and ignore the vastness that escapes her, by recording one of Kimura's performances of Chopin. Shooting straight across the top of the piano, Honigmann frames a close-up of Kimura's face and simply leaves the camera there for the dur! ation of the nocturne. A lesser filmmaker might have cut away to the hands, the expression of a listener, a photograph of the pianist's father; but Honigmann knows that the information you need, and all the emotion, are present in Kimura's intent features, which don't even stay in the frame. They sway in and out--and this corporeal ticking, this swing between here and gone, feels like climax enough.

It's been a long summer, my movie friends. Diversions, reports, polemics, come-ons and a plentiful supply of time-wasters have filled the theaters. Now, at last, comes a film that was made for love. I'd almost forgotten what I was missing until Honigmann reminded me--but that, of course, is what Forever is all about.

A First Run/Icarus Films release, Forever will be on view in New York at Film Forum, September 12-25.


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