Since a presence as private and enigmatic as the famous thriller writer – and unwitting queer icon – Patricia Highsmith may not make the easiest cinematic dissection, the documentary “Loving Highsmith” earns points for digging up as much as it does. But that alone isn’t enough to fully recommend this sometimes slow and elusive look at the revolutionary force behind novels such as “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
To chart the biography of the late author (she died in 1995), writer-director Eva Vitija relies heavily on interviews with several former Highsmith lovers, including life as a mostly closeted lesbian – especially during the extra-dicey 1940s and 1950s – would inform his approach to the world and his writing; there was often a duality and deception in its stories and characters.
Highsmith’s romantic partners, such as award-winning American writer Marijane Meaker, who lived with the novelist in the late 1950s, as well as two much younger women who first connected with Highsmith in the late 1970s – flamboyant German art scene Tabea Blumenschein, who died in 2020, and French teacher-translator Monique Buffet – weigh on their memories of the often difficult and troubled but compelling Highsmith. Meaker, now 95, is the most outspoken, particularly in describing the love-hate relationship between Highsmith and her narcissistic and neglectful mother, Mary. (Her mother admitted to drinking turpentine in an attempt to abort her daughter.)
We also learn that alongside occasional and unsatisfying forays into sex with men (she even tried gay conversion therapy), Highsmith had a long and continuous succession of female lovers, including a married woman for whom he writer moved to England. (She dubbed their doomed relationship “sadistic.”) Vitija isn’t shy about laying out the complexities of Highsmith’s sexuality, but its darker sides can feel under-examined.
The same goes for the author’s personality in general. Although archival interview clips show Highsmith as self-aware and articulate, and her notebook and journal entries, voiced by actress Gwendoline Christie, are vivid (Highsmith called her life “a chronicle of incredible mistakes “), references to alcoholism, bigotry, isolation, misanthropy and other troubling issues are more anecdotal than distinctive. Stronger context and timeline identifiers would also have helped.
Recent interviews with a trio of distant relatives from Texas-born Highsmith — a cousin’s stepdaughter and her two children — who share photo albums and remind the author of his visits to the Lone Star State, shed light on pieces of family history. But deeper knowledge of their renowned relationship seems limited.
Where this mosaic-like portrait really falters, however, is in its presentation of Highsmith’s extensive writing output and myriad film and television adaptations. Although she spent a lot of time on her creation of “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, as well as her 1952 lesbian romance novel “The Price of Salt” (written under a pseudonym but republished in 1990 as “Carol” and ultimately credited to Highsmith) you wouldn’t quite know from the doc just how successful the prolific author was – and for how much of time.
And, although there are plenty of excerpts from the most well-known screen versions of his work – “Strangers”, “Mr. Ripley”, “Carol” – far too many others go unnoticed. (Excerpts from Wim Wenders’ 1977 “The American Friend”, based on his book “Ripley’s Game”, seem oddly slippery.) Highsmith’s novels such as “Deep Water”, “The Two Faces of January” and “The Cry of the Owl” are just a few others that have notably been turned into images – multiple times each, in fact.
Meanwhile, a frequent use of rodeo imagery may be Vitija’s stab at symbolism, but it proves a distracting and chilling intrusion on the film’s compact running time; the calf images are a bit too much.
Additionally, input from contemporary LGBTQ and other writers, authors, and literary observers might have better fleshed out the film’s social and artistic perspectives.
“Loving Highsmith” is a well-intentioned effort; a respectable start. But perhaps a more definitive, dimensional documentary — or even a narrative feature — about this singularly intriguing talent will yet be made.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.