Patricia Highsmith at 21 in 1942. Photo by Rolf Tietgens, courtesy of Keith De Lellis

Loving Highsmith was screened in the Leeds International Film Festival ‘Cinema Versa’ strand for documentaries. It is the ‘labour of love’ of Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija who became interested in Highsmith through her letters and diaries rather than her novels and films in the first instance. Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) achieved early success as a novelist with Strangers on a Train, made into a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller in 1951. In 1952 she wrote a lesbian novel The Price of Salt under a pseudonym. It was adapted under the title Carol for a film by Todd Haynes in 2015. Highsmith wrote 22 novels in all, many of which have been adapted, some more than once, for film, television and radio in various languages. She lived with several women at different times and for much of her writing life, lived outside the US in the UK, France and eventually Switzerland. She was celebrated more in Europe than in the US.

Vitija gained access to archive footage of Highsmith from various sources and archive photographs from her family.She also had access to Highsmith’s archive of letters, diaries and notebooks and various entries are presented on screen using a process which produces what I assume is Highsmith’s handwriting, white on a black background. Otherwise the main source of visual material is ‘talking heads’ footage (and some archive) of surviving members of Highsmith’s family from Texas and several of the women with whom Highsmith shared houses and beds. In her later life she lived alone in Switzerland.

Highsmith’s Texan grandparents

I had hoped that this documentary would tell me more about Highsmith as a writer and how and why her work has been adapted for so many films. (The festival programme is clear about the film’s intentions.) Vitija’s real interest seems to be in Highsmith’s life as a lesbian at a time (i.e. particularly in the 1950s) when it was only possible for her to explore her sexuality in clandestine ways. I think this was what the festival audience had come to see and they seemed to enjoy the film – The Price of Salt was claimed as the first lesbian novel that did not ‘punish’ the central characters as part of its resolution. The early years of young Patricia’s life were quite difficult as her mother divorced her husband just before the birth. Patricia’s childhood was spent partly with with her grandparents in Texas and partly with her mother and stepfather in New York. Interviews with two of Highsmith’s surviving relatives in Texas are quite entertaining and Vitija presents footage of the Texas rodeo circuit in the 1920s and 1930s. The Texas family was deeply embedded in rodeo culture, but apart from a brief statement that she felt more a Southerner than a Northerner, these childhood experiences do not seem to have had as much impact on Highsmith’s writing as the New York elements. Much of the discussion about New York in the film is based around an interview with a lesbian author who had an affair with Highsmith in the 1940s and discussed the lesbian bar culture of New York and their subsequent time spent living together in the country. This process of interviews, background and Highsmith’s notes and diaries is repeated as the film follows Highsmith’s moves to live in rural Sussex, France and Switzerland. Surprisingly though, there is little about Highsmith’s college career and the writers she met in New York.

Highsmith around 1955, photo by Ellen Rifkin Hill, courtesy Swiss National Archive

Vitija does attempt to discuss aspects of the novels, mainly how Highsmith perhaps used her own experiences in thinking about characters. This might explain the characters who appear agreeable and charming but are capable of vicious acts when cornered. Vitija does this via the adaptations in some cases but she only uses footage from four films, Strangers on a Train, Carol, The Talented Mr Ripley (US 1999) and Der amerikanische Freund (1977). These were the high profile films in North America but since Highsmith spent so much of her writing career in Europe it seems odd not to focus on the films, some by major directors, made in Europe from Purple Noon in France 1960 to Ripley’s Game in Italy in 2002. Perhaps it was a rights issue problem? The documentary does cover the time when Highsmith was invited to chair the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, where she met a woman who introduced her to the Berlin club scene. Highsmith apparently enjoyed seeing David Bowie in the clubs.

I came across an interview with Eva Witija in Filmmaker magazine in which she explains her approach, arguing that she didn’t want to “make a film where we relied upon the ‘expert’ point of view — the literary expert, I mean”. Instead she has opted for the personal memory and primary source material of photographs and archive footage. The latter includes the equivalent of ‘home movie footage’. Like many in the audience I enjoyed seeing Highsmith with her cats. Vitija’s earlier documentary Das Leben Drehen (My Life as a Film, Switzerland 2015) drew on her father’s archive of films as a documentarian, several of which featured his daughter. One odd aspect of the soundtrack is that the flow of women’s voices is on occasion interrupted by the distinctive tones of Roy Plomley who interviewed Highsmith for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. I enjoyed the film and I can recommend it but it does deal more with the personal Highsmith than the working writer I think so you need to think about which is more important to you. The film is currently on release in the US and IMDb lists several other countries with distributors in place, but not the UK as yet. It’s a shortish feature (83 minutes) and it may appear on streamers or broadcast TV.

An excellent season of some of the (European) film adaptations of Highsmith’s novels toured the UK in 2016. We have covered several of the films on this blog and postings can be found using the tag: Patricia Highsmith.