“My life is a chronicle of incredible mistakes.” So writes Patricia Highsmith, the acclaimed author of Strangers on a train, The price of salt, The Talented Mr. Ripleyand much more. Loving Highsmith, directed by Eva Vitija, is a shrewd chronicle of Highsmith’s turbulent life, anchored mostly by her own diary entries, TV interviews and the memories of former lovers. Above all, it’s a fascinating window into the personal and creative life of a queer woman who constantly rebels against the restrictive social norms of her time while trying to decipher what kind of person she herself is. As Highsmith writes: “I am the one who always seeks.
English actress Gwendoline Christie voices Highsmith’s diary entries with appropriately calm intensity. She was an enigmatic character: often progressive in her worldview, but often vicious in her observations of others. She was raised in Texas under the vast shadow of her family’s prejudice, including a mother she loved dearly who didn’t love her back and would vocalize the sentiment. At a young age, she was transferred to New York. After the early success of his first novel Strangers on a train, Highsmith followed with a novel about a lesbian relationship. Worried about writing “a woman’s book” and the stigma attached to it (not to mention her family’s reactions), she had the book (then titled The price of salt) published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”. It would be the only “woman’s book” she would ever publish.
Much like his most famous character, Tom Ripley, Highsmith hid a lot from many. She wrote books about men because that’s what people wanted to read. She spent her life with women, as long as she could bear to be with another person. At the end of her life, she lived in solitude, more attached to her pets than to anything and anyone else.
Vitija is clearly determined to examine the women she did love, or at least tolerated for a time, and what they thought of Highsmith in return. Fellow writer and ex-flame Marijane Meaker speaks fondly of Highsmith while acknowledging her vicious alcoholism and tortured past. Monique Buffet, who entered into a relationship late in the author’s life, remembers a small measure of peace. At Highsmith’s advanced age, she seemed to be settling in a bit more than before.
Little is made of the prejudices to which Highsmith would succumb, especially in his later years – anti-Semitism being chief among them. Although recognized, it is fleeting and a bit hard to swallow. There’s also a contextual b-roll that feels more entertaining than engaging. And yet, the ideas are both beautiful and tragic. What a spirit this woman had. What a voice. When asked by an interviewer what’s next for Ripley and if he’s finally going to get caught, Highsmith wryly replies, “He’ll always pull through.” It feels like she had hoped for the same fate for herself, knowing it was an impossibility.
Loving Highsmith is now in theaters.