Loving Highsmith

Director: Eva Vitija (Switzerland, Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Patricia Highsmith was often disdainfully referred to as “just a thriller writer”, but her books were filmed by directors as lauded and diverse as Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train), Todd Haynes (The Price of Salt – filmed as Carol), Wim Wenders (The American Friend), and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley). Hidden beneath the surface of many of her stories was the fight of a lesbian writer to be accepted in the bourgeois society that paid her wages.

The most obvious example of her struggle was The Price of Salt, which she published as under a pseudonym. It wasn’t just the danger to her career, being known as the author of a novel about women who loved women would have meant a rupture with her conservative Texan mother. Patricia’s attempt to come to terms with her mother dominated her life – some racist statements in her later life were excused as a remnant of her reactionary upbringing in the Deep South.

Highsmith was not the most famous member of her family – not in Texas at least – even when she was writing books which were being adapted into Oscar winning films. That honour belonged to a cousin who was a rodeo star. Loving Highsmith locates her early life very well in a place that was both conservative but not too full of itself. This meant that she never let her success go to her head.

Some of the stories about Highsmith’s life are punctuated with footage of some of her younger family members discovering just what sort of life their forebear lived. Did they know that she had an affair with one of her cousins? They certainly did not, but it is maybe a sign of how things have changed since Highsmith’s time is that they shrug off the discovery as nothing particularly shocking.

What was special about Carol was that it was – the film argues – the only film of the time, in which gay characters lived happily ever after (it may be worth mentioning here that the pioneering lesbian novel was called “The Well of Loneliness”). Highsmith fought for the idea that gays and lesbians can also live in happiness – while burying her authorship behind a hidden name. It is this contradiction that makes the first hour of Loving Highsmith so fascinating.

One of the things that makes this part of the film so engaging is the interviews with Marijane Meaker – former lover and biographer of Highsmith. Meaker is dry, laconic and often hilariously honest. When asked why – outside The Price of Salt – Highsmith rarely had prominent female characters Meaker explains that this is what people wanted to read: “women like strong male characters, men like strong male characters. That’s what sells.”

Meaker and Highsmith were together for a while – the way Meaker tells it, this was nothing special, and throughout her life Highsmith had regular affairs with other women. And yet there appears to be some sort of special connection. The tale that Meaker tells of the pair of them leaving New York, together with their 5 cats, to find a life in the suburbs, could be the beginning of a fascinating love story.

Highsmith’s other exes aren’t anywhere near so interesting. French artist Monique Buffet and German costume designer Tabea Blimenschein are also caught on film recalling Highsmith, but neither really brings over what was spectacular about the US-American writer. They seem to see Highsmith as merely an object of desire, whereas Meaker saw a flawed human being who she could truly love.

The film was about 2/3rds of the way through and I was thinking that I hadn’t seen a documentary as informative and fascinating as Alexandra Dean’s spectacular Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story. And then, all of a sudden, everything started to get pretty dull. I still can’t explain exactly why this Is certainly the disappearance of Meaker didn’t help – but maybe part of this is because Highsmith gave up the fight.

Highsmith moved to Britain to try and win over an unnamed rich woman, but this didn’t work so she just moved on. For whatever reason, the film concentrates increasingly on Highsmith’s personal tragedies, whereas it had started as a shrewd analysis of the troubles experienced by a lesbian writer at a time when writers weren’t really allowed to be gay. This personalisation makes it somehow less interesting.

Loving Highsmith starts with fascinating social comment which helps us start to understand the extraordinary conditions under which Highsmith was working. It ends less with a bang than a whimper – in a sense putting Highsmith back in a box as just another writer from a particular minority, who’s individual life is only interesting because of certain salacious facts. This is a shame, because the opening hour is really, really good.

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