Heddy Honigmann visits some of the famous graves at Père Lachaise, but also walks around to meet people, talk to them, find and sometimes follow their stories, conveying them to us – so that by the time the film is over you feel content and in a good reflective mood.
Like I have done so many times myself when I have visited Père Lachaise in Paris, she starts by wandering from place to place, looking at the gravestones but mostly at the people, who are either walking around like you are, merely visiting, or occupied by watering flowers, cleaning the burial plots or taking photos (like you do, too) in front of the grave of Jim Morrison. But then Honigmann demonstrates why she is regarded as one of the most interesting documentary makers of our time. From the impressionistic glimpses of the cemetery, she delves deeper to stress that this film is not a touristy trip but something different.
She meets a young Japanese woman in front of the grave of Frédéric Chopin. The woman declares her love for music and tells us why Chopin is so painfully close to her heart. Honigmann leaves the cemetery to give us more information about the woman and makes her return to the film to sit behind the piano. Many of Honigmann’s characters return from time to time. The film has a loose structure that takes you from intense situations to scenes where you can relax. Honigmann creates the illusion that the characters are met again and again in this film, which, according to her, is about “the importance of Art in Life”.
This is the same phrase she uses to answer an Iranian man resting at the grave of the poet Sadeq Hedayat, when he asks her what kind of film she is making. She answers and questions him in return, “Why are you here at this specific grave?” He is a taxidriver in Paris but music and poetry are his passions. Honigmann dares to pause, wait for his answers, the man grows in importance and, reluctantly, but also happy with the conversation it seems, he ends up singing for us. It takes intuition to be a good documentary filmmaker – Honigmann knew that he would sing if she waited! Time and patience bring poetry.
These were two unknown people whose personal story is connected to a well-known artist. There are more like them. The sweet lady tending the graves of Marcel Proust, Apollinaire and Modigliani and who knows their personal stories. The gentle man who is a guide in Père Lachaise and who takes us to a couple of graves where no one comes. He has them for himself and can dream and make up any story about them that he pleases. And the woman called Valerie who is taken from the grave of the painter Ingres to sit by herself in a museum in front of one of his paintings.
A film about the importance of Art in Life. Marcel Proust is dust but his literature is alive. “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Yes, the film reminds us of the truth of this sentence, absolutely, and it does so in an original, inventive manner. I love how the music of Petrucciani is combined with the silent film clips of Méliès. My eyes fill with tears when I hear Maria Callas in a black-and-white archive piece from her rendition of “Tosca”. And the three blind (!) people watching a Simone Signoret film followed elegantly by a cut to the gravestone of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, who conquers the soundtrack to sing “Le Temps des Cerises” put in a completely new visual context. And I will do my best, as several others promise when they stop at Marcel Proust, to read “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu!”
But basically the film is about Life and Death. Of course, you might say – it takes place in a cemetery. But it also takes place in your own mind, you make your own associations. Existential questions are dealt with without any banality and always with a respectful curiosity for the people who reveal their heart on camera. The camera catches the situations, records them, but Honigmann avoids getting too close to the women singing or reading for those buried in the graves. She does not intrude on the spirit of solemnity that also reigns at a cemetery when we go to meet those who are no longer physically alive – yet alive in mind and heart. We fill the empty plastic bottles and bring them to where the flowers and gravestones are. To bring back the memories.