A lovely and moving portrait of the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, final resting place of many great artists and other historical figures, who are buried alongside countless "unknown" people with equally fascinating life stories. It's a beautiful, quiet place, and the film takes its cue from this, leaving plenty of room for silence and reflection.
There is no attempt to give a history of the cemetery, nor to comprehensively show all of the graves of dead celebrities, or to even tell their life stories (it is assumed that we know who these people are). Instead, we are invited to wait patiently at a few graves to see who shows up to visit them, or to witness the occasional chance encounter. The interviews that result are never intrusive. Director Heddy Honigmann respects the people she meets, and knows when to stay quiet, letting them tell their stories in their own time: a young Japanese pianist who has devoted herself to playing Chopin in honor of her dead father; an artist making a graphic novel of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"; a mortician inspired in his own work by the portraits of Modigliani; a man who leads tours, with a special fondness for the graves of certain unknown or forgotten people; a dignified Iranian immigrant taxi driver who also sings Persian classical music; a woman who tends the graves of famous writers and recites their poems; and various other family members who come to visit their loved ones, all of whom have their own interesting stories. In a way, these people are as much "residents" of the cemetery as those who are buried there; it's a place for the living as much as it is for the dead, a place of remembrance, contemplation, and deep feeling.
However, there are a few scenes that seem out of place. In one, the film cuts from a shot of Simone Signoret's grave to some blind people who "watch" (listen) and comment on a film of hers shown on TV. It goes on for a long time, but we never know anything else about them or even see them in the cemetery. Another scene cuts from a shot of the artist Ingres' grave to a woman looking at his paintings in the Louvre; I love what she has to say, but again, we don't know who she is or why we are watching her. And one scene cuts from the grave of French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani to some (stock?) concert footage of him, with no other discussion or context. For me, these scenes interrupt the flow of the film, and I wish they would have been fleshed out more, or included as extra features.
But this is a small complaint about an otherwise wonderful, poetic film that, in its own quiet way, addresses larger themes of life, death, love, devotion, memory, and inspiration without ever getting morbid or dreary. If you've ever been to Père Lachaise, you will remember why you loved it so much. And if you've never been, it will make you want to go.