2022, NR, 83 min. Directed by Eva Vitija.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 14, 2022
The image of Patricia Highsmith absorbed in the solitary act of creation, clack-clack-clacking on a manual typewriter as the words spring from her fingertips, is one of the more revealing moments in this documentary about the acclaimed American novelist who died an expatriate in Switzerland in 1995. Her rapt gaze and movement bespeak a passion transcending the merely literary. “Writing, of course, is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live,” she confides in one of the many diary and notebook entries voiced by Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) throughout the film. Recitations like that, culled from a trove of personal and professional journals, discovered hidden in a linen closet shortly after her death and made public only last year, provide Loving Highsmith its narrative spine as it dutifully traces the chronology of Highsmith’s biography. While the documentary offers a few delicate glimpses of a self the writer did not openly share during her 74-year lifetime – she lived as a lesbian, albeit privately – it falls short of conveying the vital essence of this modern and enigmatic woman of her time.
Closeted for professional and family reasons but prolific in her love affairs (former American girlfriend Marijane Meaker jokingly recalls that the author largely lived out her “own woman’s festival”), Highsmith resisted the label of crime writer despite the modest achievement of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950, with its now familiar indecent-proposal storyline of exchanging murders, and her greater success five years later upon publication of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which introduced the sociopathic chameleon Tom Ripley, who charmingly serial-kills his way through five novels over a period spanning decades. But while Highsmith closely identified with Ripley’s problematic duality, the work she most embraced is devoid of violence: the semi-autobiographical sapphic romance The Price of Salt, originally published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. (It was adapted as a film over 50 years later under the title Carol.) Highsmith attempted to write a second similarly themed novel under her own name years later, but eventually abandoned the project, unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and fear no doubt in part instilled by her mother’s abandonment of her as a child and subsequent rejection of her adult daughter’s sexuality.
The title references the film’s extended interviews with three of Highsmith’s surviving female ex-paramours (including Meaker), as well as a discussion of the love of her life, a now deceased married Englishwoman with whom she could never realize lasting happiness. But little is disclosed here about the dynamic of any of these relationships, and the angle feels like a red herring. The documentary also soft-pedals the cat-loving, snail-raising author’s growing isolation and anti-Semitism during her later years in Europe. And what’s with the frequent cowgirl and rodeo film footage in ostensible tribute to her Texas roots? For film aficionados, however, Loving Highsmith excels when it expertly pairs Highsmith’s prose with its cinematic expression, her psychologically compelling plots inspiring a spectrum of notable filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Wim Wenders to Anthony Minghella to Todd Haynes (not to mention René Clément and Liliana Cavani). Whether she intended so consciously, her novels were camera-ready, a legacy that may long outlive her status as any queer semi-icon.