Loving Highsmith celebrates the “creepy ideas” of American novelist Patricia Highsmith while shielding the audience from dark historical truths. Director Eva Vitija explores the queer subject’s worldview through readings from actress Gwendoline Christie and on-camera testimonies from various female lovers, yet there’s something lacking about the storytelling approach, aside from the absence of Highsmith’s male friends and/or acquaintances. The doc hits all the appropriate talking points en route to an underwhelming final act.
In pop culture, Highsmith is best known for writing the novels Strangers on a Train (1950), The Price of Salt aka Carol (1952), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Deep Water (1957) and Ripley’s Game (1974). Vitija’s documentary juxtaposes the subject’s cinematic writing voice with movie clips from big screen adaptations, all the while utilizing Christie (Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth) for vivid voice-over interpretations of Highsmith’s thoughts on gender, sexuality and creativity. Loving Highsmith establishes the author’s relevance in 21st century American literature, and that she rebelled against her “bitch” mother and racist grandmother, but doesn’t go the extra step by analyzing the nuances of Highsmith’s darkest tales, most notably the five-book series about a gentleman murderer named Tom Ripley. When the author states that writing is a substitute for the life she’s unable to live, the moment seems to be the ideal set-up for a psychoanalytic deep dive. Instead, Vitija moves along to a sequence about Highsmith’s romantic and creative partnership with the late German multihyphenate Tabea Blumenschein.
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If Loving Highsmith lacks nuance, that’s probably because the subject didn’t reveal much about her upbringing in Texas and New York. Author Marijane Meaker, who dated Highsmith during the late 50s and early 60s, fills in some gaps by explaining her former lover’s practical business approach: books with male protagonists sell the best. Structurally, Vitija doesn’t provide any initial context for Meaker’s inclusion in the documentary, which may confuse younger viewers who get lost in the multi-decade timeline. Meaker eventually clarifies her relationship with the subject; however, Loving Highsmith lacks objective analysis from academics or acquaintances who didn’t have a close relationship with the author.
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Loving Highsmith struggles with its show-and-tell approach. The film will likely entertain the nostalgia-loving pop culture consumer, but the inclusion of extended sequences from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) add little from an analytical aspect and arguably distract, if only slightly, from the central focus — the literary work of a closeted female artist. It would’ve been much more effective to have the aforementioned Christie describe Highsmith’s characters through voice-over, rather than spotlighting footage of male actors, especially since Loving Highsmith doesn’t feature any male interviewees. Lastly, a late revelation about Highsmith’s racist remarks in her final years deserved more transparency. (An opening segment reveals that the subject was exposed to casual racism at an early age). Loving Highsmith is like a carefully curated Instagram account — it tells part of the story and avoids the messy stuff.
Loving Highsmith released on September 2 at Film Forum in New York City and September 9 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
Q.V. (Quinn) Hough is Vague Visages’ founding editor.