The best moments in Patricia Highsmith’s novels are the ones in which we see quick flashes of her protagonists’ interiority, before they reset the masks they’re inevitably presenting to the rest of the world.
We learn in the documentary “Loving Highsmith” that the author herself knew plenty about the duality that defined so many of her characters. As director Eva Vitija makes clear, Highsmith was required — by law, by society, perhaps also by personality — to wear a number of masks throughout her life and career.
Though she certainly qualified as a public figure, Highsmith remained deeply private. And who could blame her? The years between 1950 and 1980, when she wrote most of her bestsellers, were hardly welcoming to most female professionals, let alone gay women who soundly rejected cultural norms of marriage, children and strictly-defined femininity.
Vitija is more interested in the woman than the writer, which makes sense; we already know more about the latter than the former. Highsmith was arguably most famous in her lifetime as the author of the Ripley thrillers, which have been adapted so often the titular sociopath has been played by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Barry Pepper and, in an upcoming series, Andrew Scott. In fact, there are more than 40 adaptations of her stories listed on IMDb, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated “Strangers on a Train” from 1951.
Recent fans, though, are as likely to have discovered her through Todd Haynes’ 2015 romance “Carol,” based on her novel “The Price of Salt.” Highsmith published the book pseudonymously in 1952 as a pulp title. For decades, it was passed quietly among readers who had finally found a lesbian romance that didn’t end in tragedy.
Vitija’s primary focus is, as the title suggests, on the women in Highsmith’s life. She goes to Texas to interview family members about the author’s tortured relationship with her cold and often cruel mother. She learns that Highsmith found tentative stability with her kind but very traditional grandmother; the director also speaks at length to her friends and lovers, including writer Marijane Meaker and artist Tabea Blumenschein.
Together, Highsmith’s former flames draw a compelling portrait of underground life in the mid 20th century, as we learn how each influenced the author both personally and professionally. Vitija also makes great use of Highsmith’s unpublished diaries, which are not only gorgeously written (no surprise) but unexpectedly expressive.
In fact, the film falters each time it strays from this focus: Rodeo images matched to the Texas scenes make for an awkward metaphor and wind up feeling like filler. In contrast, a few sparsely chosen film clips only make us wonder why there aren’t more.
Fortunately Highsmith’s own words, which are voiced beautifully by Gwendoline Christie, always bring us back. “Writing, of course, is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live,” Highsmith confessed to herself. But Vitija makes another case altogether — that she created an expansive and fascinating life, while simultaneously inspiring a great many others to do the same.
“Loving Highsmith” opens in NYC September 2 and LA September 9.