- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Just about everyone fascinating ends up in Paris at some point — at least it sometimes seems that way. The feeling is reinforced on watching “Forever.” The documentary is ostensibly about visitors to Paris’ famed Pere-Lachaise cemetery, reputed to be the world’s most-visited. But this is no somber doc about death. In exploring the life-changing, death-defying power of beauty, “Forever” turns out to be a fascinating, beautiful meditation on art.

Dutch-based filmmaker Heddy Honigmann trains her camera on the graves of both the well-known and the practically unknown in Pere-Lachaise. The cemetery is the final resting place of some of the most enduring artists of all time — some French, some not: Balzac, Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde — even Jim Morrison.

The mostly well-spoken visitors, whom Miss Honigmann encourages to open up, are easily reflective about their heroes. (She asks one Proust pilgrim if he’s read the author of “A la recherche du temps perdu.” “Yes, of course,” he responds. Only in Paris.)

The visitors are as multicultural a lot as those interred. A French woman frequents the cemetery regularly, devotedly cleaning the graves of Apollinaire and Proust. A young South Korean brings cookies for Proust — he’s been reading him for 10 years.

A visit to the grave of Iranian novelist Sadegh Hedayat leads Miss Honigmann to a moving conversation with an Iranian expatriate. Like his idol, he has abandoned his home country for France. But the man, who makes a living as a taxi driver, keeps in touch with his culture by singing the Persian classical music he loves. He at first refuses to sing for the camera, but the mysteriously persuasive filmmaker finally coaxes a song from him.

Not everyone is there to pay homage to someone famous, but even these visitors prove charming. Miss Honigmann finds three women sitting together on a bench, there to visit dead husbands. One is asked why she left Spain. Because of Franco, she replies: “We had different ideas.”

There are a few tears, but most of the visitors seem inspired and invigorated by their pilgrimages. Miss Honigmann wisely takes us outside the cemetery now and then to show how the work of these long-dead artists changes everyday lives. A man who became engrossed in art while reading Proust, leading to illustrated versions of the master’s works, spiritedly argues that real happiness lies in the experience of art: “Proust gives you eternity.”

A middle-aged man who has been obsessed with Pere-Lachaise since he was a child sums up the film’s spirit when he relates what a girl told him during a visit there when he was 15: “Bertrand, if your life is filled with the music of Chopin, the novels of Balzac, the poems of Musset, then you”ll never be alone.”

Cinematographer Robert Alazraki has done a glorious job on 35 mm: His shots, inspired by photography, give us picturesque views of the worn but beautiful statues and the brightly colored potted plants that appear on every grave.

“Forever” is as beautiful as the cemetery itself.

****

TITLE: “Forever”

RATING: Not rated (suitable for all audiences)

CREDITS: Directed by Heddy Honigmann. Written by Miss Honigmann, Ester Gould and Judith Vreriks. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.frif.com/new2007/fore.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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