It turns out that the American writer Patricia Highsmith, whose work inspired such illustrious filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and Todd Haynes, was just as prolific and popular with the most interesting women of her time. Women lotharios are hardly as revered as their male counterparts, and even less so for history’s great queer romancers, whose lives are often reduced to their saddest highlights when they’re remembered at all. In centering the writer’s sexuality in her lively and captivating documentary “Loving Highsmith,” filmmaker Eva Vitija does a great service not only to fans of Highsmith’s, but to all of queer history. As seen through the eyes of her former lovers (merely a few of many), Highsmith’s life is brought sharply into focus, revealing as much about her humanity as her work.
Highsmith kept exhaustive diaries in addition to her published work, and both are voiced pleasantly in the film by Gwendoline Christie. Her published writing takes on an obvious queerness when heard in concert with the diaries, though “The Price of Salt” (later renamed “Carol”) was her only overtly queer novel published in her lifetime. Published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan in 1952, “The Price of Salt” was the first lesbian romance novel where the lovers didn’t either return to straight family life or end up dead. This made the novel wildly popular with lesbians at the time, a fact that no doubt bolstered Highsmith’s many international affairs.
While it was virtually impossible to be out as a public figure at the time, Highsmith (who went by Pat to friends) lived an openly queer and very cosmopolitan existence, keeping lovers in Paris, New York, Berlin, and London. But Highsmith also battled internalized homophobia stemming from a strained relationship with her mother, who abandoned her as a child in rural Texas before moving her to New York at age six. Born in 1921, her unmarried mother took no pains to hide the fact that she never wanted a child, telling Highsmith she took turpentine during pregnancy.
“Mary was appalled at having a child,” says Marijane Meaker, a prolific writer credited with launching the lesbian pulp fiction genre in the 1950s who dated Highsmith for two years. Incisive and direct, the 95-year-old is an anchoring presence in the film, acting as a portal to Highsmith’s queer past while remaining very much alive in the present. Naturally, she has a way with words, offering some of the film’s best one-liners in a brusque rumble. “She had a mother love, and it was never returned,” says Meaker, giving Highsmith a piercing Freudian read. “Her mother was a…bitch.”
Vitija also makes use of a rich archive of radio and video interviews with Highsmith herself, though she also wrote in her diaries of hating feeling like she was under a microscope. “Ever since I was 16 or 17, I get what is sometimes called creepy ideas,” she says by way of introduction. “These things just pop into one’s head in my opinion, I can never say why or when.”
The film posits that the darkness of Highsmith’s work and her difficulty finding lasting partnership stemmed from a desperate need for approval from her mother, who rejected her at every turn. This inner turmoil is embodied in the striving and obsessive nature of her most notorious character, Tom Ripley, considered her closest alter ego. First introduced in the 1955 thriller “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the character appeared in four subsequent novels and was famously portrayed by Matt Damon in the 1999 film of the same name. Vitija is sparing with the film clips, highlighting only the most visually ripe representations of the themes as they relate to Highsmith’s psyche. Rather than the typical indulgent montage aimed at cinephiles, each choice reveals something deeper about the writer.
In addition to Meaker, “Loving Highsmith” earns its cheeky title through interviews with two other great loves: the gentle Frenchwoman Monique Buffet and the German actress and artist Tabea Blumenschein, who died before the film was finished. In turns funny, moving, and thoughtful, the two women paint a picture of Highsmith as sexy, charismatic, kind, and even vulnerable. When Blumenschein breaks her heart by not moving to the French countryside from Berlin, Buffet rescues her from depression and writer’s block. As her two last serious girlfriends, she writes details of both into the fourth Ripley novel “The Boy Who Followed Ripley,” which is dedicated to Buffet.
These dalliances serve to soften the acerbic writer, who could be cruel to friends and espoused racist and anti-semitic views. The film brushes past this little inconvenient detail with little more than a passing comment, minimizing a rather large piece of an otherwise carefully crafted puzzle.
“There isn’t any constant personality for a writer,” Highsmith tells one poor interviewer, trying and failing to pin her down. Vitija gets closer than most, though there will always be blind spots. In taking the approach of an intimate yet outside observer, “Loving Highsmith” sees Pat in a light that perhaps she’d approve of — as a lover from the past.
“Loving Highsmith” had its U.S. Premiere at the Provincetown International Film Festival. It will be released by Kino Lorber and Zeitgest Films in September.