Loving Highsmith: a mostly compelling ‘love biography’

This sympathetic documentary about Patricia Highsmith attempts to capture the novelist’s identity by exploring her storied love life.

Loving Highsmith (2022)Rolf Tietgens

As a writer, Patricia Highsmith deservedly enjoys an exalted reputation; as a person, rather less so. High on her list of sins are her hateful or prejudicial comments about Jewish, Arab and Black people; as time went on she became almost as well known for her cantankerous behaviour and misanthropy as for her literary gifts.

As its title suggests, this documentary by Swiss writer/director Eva Vitija (My Life as a Film, 2015) takes an altogether less censorious view of the novelist. Drawing extensively on Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941-1995, published in 2021, Vitija has created what she calls a “love-biography”. Much of this is related by three of Highsmith’s longer-term lovers: the American writer Marijane Meaker, the French teacher and translator Monique Buffet, and the late German actor, director and costume designer Tabea Blumenschein.

Three of Highsmith’s relatives fill in some of her troubled family background. She was born in Fort Worth, Texas; her mother Mary divorced her German husband nine days before Patricia was born, having unsuccessfully tried to induce an abortion by drinking turpentine. Soon after the birth, Mary departed for New York, and Patricia spent six happy years with her “ranching, rodeo, basic Texas family”, until her mother, now remarried, fetched her to New York. Their bond was a fraught one. When Patricia was 16, Mary, having sussed out her daughter’s lesbian nature, pushed her into a hetero relationship. Kissing her suitor, Highsmith recalled, was “like falling into a bucket of oysters”.

Not surprisingly, Highsmith didn’t reveal to her mother the true authorship of her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), published under the name of ‘Claire Morgan’. Inspired by Highsmith’s brief encounter with a glamorous customer in a New York department store, the novel, unprecedented among gay fictions in reaching a relatively happy ending, sold nearly a million copies.

In 1990 the book was republished under Highsmith’s name as ‘Carol’, and was filmed under that title by Todd Haynes in 2015. Excerpts from the movie are included in Vitija’s film, along with scenes from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). But ultimately Loving Highsmith isn’t about the books Highsmith wrote, still less about the films adapted from them, but about the woman herself, her quest for love and her often elusive identity.

Here and there Loving Highsmith turns a touch repetitive; and the rodeo sequences, high-spirited though they are, don’t add much. But for most of the time we’re held by all that the film reveals.

Loving Highsmith is in UK cinemas from Friday 14 April.