In its own way, Swiss director Eva Vitija’s documentary about lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith is quite perverse. Highsmith is best remembered for “The Price of Salt,” her uncharacteristically cheerful tale about two women who fall in love, and the series of novels about her anti-hero Tom Ripley, an American murderer who flees to Europe. The tone of “Loving Highsmith” is quite gentle and measured. Based upon interviews with Highsmith’s lovers and footage from the many films adapted from her work, it’s full of slow zooms into still photos as airy folk music plays. Highsmith’s life was quite chaotic. Although her former partner, Marijane Meaker (who found great success as the YA novelist M.E. Kerr), acknowledges this on screen, “Loving Highsmith” is much mellower than “Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s,” Meaker’s memoir about their relationship.
Highsmith was nothing if not a world citizen. Ripley’s passage to Europe reflected her own life. Meaker vividly recalls the gay bar scene of New York in the ‘50s, where repression went hand in hand with a thriving social life. (She relates an anecdote about being denied entry to a bar because she revealed its existence to a cab driver.) “The Price of Salt” was originally published under a pseudonym, and Highsmith didn’t take public credit for it until 1990. Even the Parisian clubs she frequented were only a bit freer — lesbian bars existed, but they tried to hide their nature. Circling the Berlin punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she dated actress and fashion designer Tabea Blumenschein, who starred in several films by lesbian director Ulrike Ottinger.
Inevitably, these tensions made it into Highsmith’s novels. “The Price of Salt” deals much more straightforwardly with unambiguously queer characters than she would do until her final novel “Small g,” published shortly after her death in 1995. Instead, “Strangers on a Train” turned homoerotic attraction into the motivation for murder. (This theme comes off particularly clearly in Anthony Minghella’s film “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”) Ripley’s sexuality seems undefined, but the character was clearly an alter ego of sorts. “Loving Highsmith” makes a direct connection by cutting from an interview with Blumenschein about drag kings to clips of Matt Damon, portraying Ripley, trying on costumes in the mirror and lip-syncing to pop music. Ripley’s adoption of disguise is a form of play with gender and sexuality, conducted at a time when murder was more acceptable — at least in the media — than open gayness.
“Loving Highsmith” errs on the side of being kind to Highsmith. The film briefly mentions her antisemitism and racism but does not touch on its level of severity. Without wanting to “cancel” her posthumously, the fact that she described herself as a “Jew hater” and constantly wrote letters attacking Jews to Swiss newspapers indicates the importance of this bigotry to her psyche. The film’s forgiving tone is not shared by many who knew Highsmith.
“Loving Highsmith” is rather cursory. At 80 minutes, it barely scratches the surface of Highsmith’s life, while its reliance on film clips, interviews, and still photos gives it the air of PBS’ “American Masters” series. The movie gives little thought to how it could work as cinematically as the films from which it takes clips; even the voice-over and images generally reinforce each other. The question of assessing the legacy of artists whose personal opinions and behavior were vile is still an unresolved one — especially when they passed away decades ago, as Highsmith did — and “Loving Highsmith” wouldn’t be better off for injecting her into The Discourse for being “problematic.” But it sanitizes her in order to put her on a pedestal as a queer icon, emphasizing the optimism of “The Price of Salt” at the expense of the darkness of most of her other novels, when her art was far more complicated (and richer for it.)
“Loving Highsmith” | Directed by Eva Vitija | Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber | Opens Sept. 2nd at Film Forum