The author of the celebrated lesbian novel adapted in the 2015 film “Carol” and the creator of the sociopathic serial killer and frequent film character Tom Ripley, Texas-born Patricia Highsmith is now the subject of the fine documentary “Loving Highsmith.”
Written and directed by Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija, the film is being accompanied by a “Highsmith on Screen” series at some venues. Such a series might include Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” a 1951 adaptation of Highsmith’s first novel; Rene Clement’s justly legendary “Purple Noon” (1960), with a young Alain Delon in a star-making turn as Ripley; Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend,” a 1977 breakout effort with Dennis Hopper as Ripley; “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a 1999 adaptation with Matt Damon in the title role; and Liliana Cavani’s underrated 2002 effort “Ripley’s Game” with a great title turn by John Malkovich.
Director Vitija quotes from Highsmith’s 8,000 pages of notebooks and diaries (the narrator’s voice is the English actor Gwendoline Christie), and shows us excerpts of filmed interviews with the notably feline Highsmith, whose hairstyle remains the same throughout her adulthood. Vitija explores Highsmith’s sexuality, which made her an outsider in 1940s and ’50s America. One of the on-camera lovers is Marijane Meaker, an American writer who wrote lesbian novels using pseudonyms and tells us of introducing Highsmith to Greenwich Village lesbian bars. Highsmith had a difficult relationship with her mother, who did not reciprocate her daughter’s love.
The film also gives us a sense of what it was like for Highsmith growing up amid the rodeos and ranches of Fort Worth, Texas. Highsmith resented being labeled a “crime writer” after the 1950 publication of “Strangers on a Train.” She loved to travel, especially by sea (if not train), and her success made much travel possible. She became conversational in French and German. Her Aunt Milly established the first flight attendant’s school in the United States. When Highsmith’s Texas relatives are informed that Highsmith had an affair with her Aunt Milly, the result is priceless. We hear of a lesbian dance bar in Berlin named Pour Elle, where a young David Bowie could supposedly be found. Highsmith and Meaker spent weeks together in the country with Highsmith’s several cats, deciding each night whose turn it was to cook. This is when Meaker realizes that Highsmith drank while writing.
Highsmith moves first to England, then to France and finally, after a tussle with French tax authorities, Switzerland. She becomes a famous citizen of the world, but rails against “the indignity of the interview.” She serves as the chair of the jury of the 1978 Berlin Film Festival, where John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night” aptly serves as the festival’s opening night offering.
We meet Highsmith’s lover Monique Buffet and the much younger consort Tabea Blumenschein. The lovers show different sides of Highsmith, who was labeled “a poet of apprehension” by Graham Greene. We also see Rooney Mara, the aforementioned Damon, Cate Blanchett and Farley Granger in film clips. “Loving Highsmith” is a typical arrangement of archival footage and interviews. The twangy, all-string score by Noel Akchote adds a touch that is at once familiar and alien.
A wry diary entry titled “a chronicle of unbelievable mistakes” might strike some as the name of their autobiography. Director Vitija reveals that Highsmith’s diaries also contain racist and antisemitic sentiment, which is both distressing and odd for someone discriminated against in her lifetime for being a homosexual. To the end, Highsmith is nothing if not an enigma.
No MPAA rating (contains brief nudity, sexually suggestive language and profanity)
Running time: 1:23
How to watch: Now in theaters