Peruvian-born, Netherlands-based filmmaker Heddy Honigmann's documentary about Paris's Pere Lachaise Cemetery isn't the morbid meditation on mortality you might think. Honigmann, the same filmmaker who found poetry on the streets and beaches of Rio in O AMOR NATURAL (1996) and classical music in the Paris Metro in THE UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA (1998) uses the famed necropolis as a means of looking how artistic inspiration continues to live on long after the artist's death.
Long before Pere Lachaise became notorious as the final resting place of the Doors' frontman Jim Morrison, whose grave has become an unsightly shrine for his ever-growing fanbase, the stately, 118 acre cemetery -- the largest in Paris -- had been known as the bone yard of choice for some of Europe's great artists: Balzac, Bizet, Moliere, Delacroix, Edith Piaf and Isadora Duncan are among Morrison's eternal neighbors. They, too, have their own passionate admirers, many of whom also come from all over the world to pay tribute to their own artistic idols. With her camera in hand, Honigmann interviews a handful of these faithful pilgrims among the vaults and pithily inscribed tombstones of Pere Lachaise in an effort to understand how long-departed artists can continue to make their presences felt across the greatest divide of them all. Young pianist Yoshino Kimura has come all the way from Japan to pay her respects to Frederic Chopin. Still grieving over the loss of her father who died of "overwork" at a young age, Yoshino feels a strong connection to him and the Polish composer each time she plays Chopin's music. Past the tomb of Oscar Wilde and the striking modernist sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein -- the base is now covered with lipstick kisses and florid thank-you notes that might make Morrissey himself blush -- Honigmann comes to the grave of Marcel Proust, an elegantly simple black marble kept tidy by Leone Desmasures, an elderly woman who makes it her business to keep certain gravesites presentable (Desmasures also tends to the final resting place of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a rough-hewn monolith engraved with one of his famous calligrams). At Proust's tomb, illustrator Stephane Heuet offers an appropriate observation on immortality, an intimation he learned from Proust the second time he attempted Remembrance of Things Past and found himself "infected": Memory makes us eternal, and true life exists only in art. At the grave of Sadegh Hedayat, arguably Iran's greatest modern writer, an Iranian cabdriver named Reza Khoddam talks about how Hedayat helped him understand the nature of self-imposed exile before launching into one of the traditional Persian songs he sings to stay connected to his roots. A visit to the tomb Simone Signoret shares with Yves Montand leads Honigmann to the home of a blind man who, along with two equally sightless friends, "watch" Signoret as she weaves her deadly web in Henri-Georges Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES. The darkness separating Clouzot and Signoret from their fans, it turns out, is no match for the spell they cast.
Curiously, Honigmann does not stop at Morrison's grave (although she does ask a few elderly Parisians what they make of all the fuss); of all the illustrious poets and musicians now residing at Pere Lachaise, his influence is perhaps the strongest felt among younger generations. This no doubt deliberate oversight leads one to think about all the other graves at Pere Lachaise, particularly the graves of those who lived and died outside of any established literary, musical or artistic canon, or who weren't "artists" at all and no longer have friends or family to commemorate their passing. Interestingly, the film's most moving moment comes courtesy of Bertrand Beyern, a cemetery guide who ferries tourists around Pere Lachaise's most famous spots. The grave that moves him most is that of Elisa Mercoeur, a now forgotten 19th-century poet named who died at 21. Over the past two decades, Beyern has watched her unattended tomb crumble into a ruin, and the poem inscribed on its side gradually disappear into oblivion. In the end, it's not just the dead who influence the living, but the living who enable the dead to speak, but only for as long as they are remembered. leave a comment --Ken Fox