Heddy Honigmann’s documentaries are journeys into emotional landscapes we keep hidden from the world, or that we explore fleetingly, mostly with strangers. The Underground Orchestra (1998) is about Paris’ street musicians, and Crazy (1999) is about soldiers whose sanity was preserved by a favorite piece of music, but like all of Honigmann’s work, these documentaries define some dimension of the human experience so complicated that only through an image can we even begin to discuss it.
The street musicians are all exiles of some sort, edge-dwellers, outcasts, artists born into states where war has so ravaged human sensibility that there is no place for them. The soldiers, too: Can anyone return whole from “bullet alley” and the siege of Sarajevo? Their isolation may be extreme, but it is familiar: It is a feeling of separateness and longing, not what we experience when we are away from our loved ones, but a feeling that comes from simply being alive in a universe we cannot explain. It’s what Sartre called “forlornness.” Ironically, though we share this very sensibility with every other human being, even if we are able to find the words to express it, it is easier to talk about the things which elicit the feeling than the “forlornness” itself. For that, we rely on art, beauty and myth.
In Forever, Honigmann takes her camera to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There she speaks with people who visit the graves of literary figures like Marcel Proust, and others who simply visit their relatives. All that remains of the famous—Ingres, Apollinaire, Chopin, Maria Callas—is their art, but in both the celebrated and the not so well-known, strangers and loved ones alike find avenues for expression they probably share with no living soul. In one of the most subtle but stirring scenes in the documentary, a woman explains to Honigmann why she still speaks to her dead father: He was an artist, of sorts, she declares, a well-known shoe designer, and he understood beauty, so she talks to him about art exhibits, and about the other splendid things she witnesses. The sequence is a sublime rumination on how infrequently we discuss the entire subject of beauty.
There is a man who confesses that he feels at home in cemeteries because he walked in one as a child with his grandfather. He tells Honigmann he is lucky to have known death in such a way, long before he felt his own mortality. If there is a link between beauty and death, Honigmann has found it in Forever. Even in the documentary’s score, in Chopin’s lovely “Nocturne No. 8" and “Fantaisie Impromptu, Opus 66,” performed by Japanese pianist Yoshino Kimura, Honigmann discovers a connection between beauty and death: It is Kimura’s hope that her dead father is listening to her play. Chopin was his favorite composer. Kimura herself visits Chopin at Père Lachaise.
In a particularly wistful passage in Forever, a Korean man pauses at Proust’s grave. He’s one of the few visitors Honigmann interviews there who has actually read Proust, but the man’s English is as poor as his French. Realizing that she and the Korean share no common languages, she invites the man to say what he feels about Proust’s work in his own tongue. He does, and somehow, like Honigmann, we are satisfied, despite the fact that there are no English subtitles: It’s apparent the young Korean has spoken about the enchantment he discovered in Proust, and has appreciated the privilege of having been asked to describe it.
Heidegger, the German philosopher, once wrote that when he gazed at Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, he felt the painting speak to him. That, he concluded, was the mark of great art—the presence of soul he sensed in Van Gogh’s painting would be felt by everyone who saw it. A Pair of Shoes (1885) hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and this critic had the most wonderful, profound conversation with a perfect stranger about what we each glimpsed of a man’s life in those shoes, and of what Van Gogh felt about his own life when, five years before his death, he painted them. Van Gogh is not buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery, nor is Heidegger. No matter: A filmmaker who finds meaningful similarities in one woman’s analysis of Ingres’ Portrait of Mademoiselle Rivière, and another woman’s reading of Apollinaire from a poem on his gravestone, deserves not just a critique of her film but an acknowledgment of its power to stir a memory of beauty beheld and shared.