Patricia Highsmith was famous in the “outside world” for her crime novels, adapted into hit movies by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train), this film reveals early on, while in queer clubs she was celebrated as the author of The Price of Salt (now better known as Carol), the first lesbian love story without a tragic ending.
In 2021, the contents of the late writer’s personal notebooks and diaries were released and caused a public outcry over the revelation of her internalised misogyny and homophobia. With Loving Highsmith, Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija chiefly addresses Highsmith’s complex relationship with her own womanhood and attraction to other women.
The footage is comprised of archival photographs or interviews, film clips of her adapted novels and talking heads of former partners and remaining family members. Gwendoline Christie narrates the passages written by Highsmith. Occasionally the director speaks to her decisions, and some of the audio comes from uncaptioned interviews that are not assigned context and can cause confusion as to who or what is being heard.
While the documentary makes a point to stress how seclusive Highsmith was, how careful she was about keeping these particular writings hidden from anyone, it still quotes from them. The more is revealed about her life, the more one grasps how invasive she would have found this digging into her life. The selected interview passages imply the judgment she already faced for being introverted. There is a sequence in which an interview devolves into Highsmith’s words of indignation at interview situations.
Coming from a place of love for the writer, as imparted by the title, the director still puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position of complicity. Are thoughts no longer free when you are famous? Why does her private life, which she guarded so vehemently, suddenly become public domain after her death?
At the same time, psychologically, we see much of her story reflected in the novels she published. “Writing is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live,” Highsmith pens. Asked about her repeated exploration of murder, the author shares that it is rather the topic of guilt – the presence and the absence of it – that she continually seeks to examine. Comparisons are drawn to her most famous character, Tom Ripley (predecessor of You’s Joe Goldberg): a likeable psychopath, who assumes the identities of the men he craves and in Highsmith’s own words, “kills only when he thinks it’s right.”
Loving Highsmith is a film almost as ambivalent as its subject, but comes recommended to those eager to cast the first stone and fans alike.
Loving Highsmith is released in select cinemas on 14th April 2023.
Watch the trailer for Loving Highsmith here: