Just like the rest of us, the movies have their favorite authors: Dickens, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Jim Thompson. For whatever reasons, their books have lent themselves to many screen adaptations and many screen adaptations that are good or even great.
Don’t overlook Patricia Highsmith. She may be the only one whose own life could itself be a movie. Until someone makes that biopic (Holly Hunter as the lead? Sally Hawkins?), “Loving Highsmith” will do nicely. Eva Vitija’s documentary is lean and lucid and even at 84 minutes never feels hurried.
The filmmaker’s admiration for her subject is plain. That admiration is not just for Highsmith’s very considerable literary talents but also her matter-of-fact-ness about being gay at a time many people refused even to believe gayness was a fact. Her pseudonymously published 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt,” about a lesbian relationship, figures prominently in the documentary. Eventually, it, too, like so many of her works, was made into a movie, “Carol,” in 2015.
But the admiration is unillusioned. Highsmith specialized in characters who were beyond good and evil. In the documentary, we hear her describe Tom Ripley, her best-known character, as “a person who doesn’t feel guilty in the usual way.” The same could be said of his creator. Amorality came as naturally to her as it did to Bruno, in “Strangers on a Train,” or to Ripley, in the five novels he’s the protagonist of.
Ah, Ripley. Forget Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. You can play Six Degrees of Tom Ripley. Matt Damon, Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, and Barry Pepper are among the actors who’ve played him in the movies.
Highsmith (1921-95) was born in Texas. Her mother divorced her father nine days before her birth. She moved to New York at 6, went to Barnard, traveled regularly to Europe, eventually settling there — variously living in England, France, and finally Switzerland.
The film draws on multiple resources: photographs; period interviews with Highsmith, both audio and film; interviews Vitija conducted with her Texas relatives; clips from movie adaptations of her books; passages from her unpublished diaries (very capably read by Gwendoline Christie). Another resource is easily overlooked, since it’s only heard: Noël Akchoté's stark and airy guitar-driven score. It sounds a bit like John Fahey, then a bit more like Bill Frisell (and, in fact, it’s Frisell who’s playing).
There are also extensive interviews with three of Highsmith’s lovers: one American, one French, one German. These are key. The title “Loving Highsmith” at first seems to refer to Vitija’s attachment to her subject. With these interviewees, another meaning emerges. These women found Highsmith’s gamine attractiveness as irresistible as the camera does and her implacable character no less so. “Loving” Highsmith takes on a specific and personal meaning. In a way, the documentary is as much about these women as it is about the famous person they loved.
But then a third, ironic, even subversive meaning suggests itself: “loving” Patricia Highsmith was not. In the footage we see of her there are four seeming constants: cigarettes, cats, candor, and an unmistakable apartness. There’s something fitting about Highsmith spending her final years in Switzerland, that chilly, prosperous, controlled country. Connection for her was an activity or pastime, not a requirement. “I never wrote a mystery in my life,” we hear her say. “I just write a story.” No, perhaps she never did write a mystery, her books transcending the genre. Instead, she lived one.
Written and directed by Eva Vitija. At Kendall Square. 84 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: discussions of sexuality, very brief nudity). In English, French, and German, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.