What do Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Guillaume Apollinaire, Amedeo Modigliani, Frederic Chopin, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Maria Callas, and more than 300,000 other people have in common? Their remains are buried in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.
In "Forever," Heddy Honigmann offers neither history nor tour. There's nary a word about the cemetery's namesake, who was confessor to Louis XIV, or a map to be seen.
Instead, Honigmann's camera unhurriedly wanders among the graves, showing us mourners, tourists, and, of course, headstones. Numerous graffiti indicate the way to Morrison's grave. Lipstick smudges cover Wilde's tombstone. The cemetery is revealed as a kind of neighborhood, no less Parisian for being inhabited by the dead; and Honigmann, whom we never see, strikes up conversations with the living who come to visit.
A woman who tends Apollinaire's grave speaks of her love for his poetry. A Korean admirer brings flowers to honor the memory of Proust. Another devotee of the novelist turns out to be an illustrator who's done a series of cartoon versions of "In Search of Lost Time" (and is wonderfully articulate on the subject). We meet an embalmer who loves Modigliani - and also get to watch him at his workplace plying his trade. A young Japanese woman at Chopin's grave is a piano student, and Honigmann shows her playing his music.
For much of "Forever," this pairing of Pere-Lachaise's dead with living admirers can be charming, even affecting. Eventually, though, Honigmann's overriding message emerges: that art survives the grave, and past creativity can both enliven the present and endure into the future. It's hard to imagine anyone disagreeing - or at least anyone likely to be at the MFA, where "Forever" will be playing its Boston engagement. It's just as hard imagining anyone thinking such a point needs a documentary to demonstrate it.
Just because a banal observation is true doesn't make it any less banal, and the art-appreciation-class obviousness of Honigmann's theme muffles the winning particularity of her people and their stories. We are meant to appreciate them less for their flesh-and-blood remarkableness (which is considerable) than for their showing, as "Forever" puts it, "the importance of art in life."
That's what the subtitle said, anyway. The person I watched "Forever" with kept lamenting the looseness of the English translation. Since she was born in France, I'll take her mot for it.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.