Patricia Highsmith’s novels were often about characters circling each other with guarded circumspection. It was an appropriate dynamic for one of the most acclaimed crime fiction writers of the 20th century, but it also defines her quasi-autobiographical 1952 romance The Price of Salt. Focusing on an affair between a divorcing housewife and a young woman in New York, it was originally published under a nom de plume, as Highsmith didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “lesbian-book writer”; it wasn’t published under her real name until a 1990 reprint, whereupon it was rechristened Carol. She adopted a similarly elusive nature in her own life, departing the United States for Europe, much like her most famous creation, the conman/murderer Tom Ripley. Abroad in places like France and Switzerland, she embraced the queerness she spent the early parts of her life denying, though for the most part she was tight-lipped with the press about her private life. From her personal writings (found posthumously in a closet, which was rather on the nose), along with fragments of her work and the recollections of some remaining friends and family, Eva Vitija’s documentary Loving Highsmith constructs a view of the author that is more intimate than most.

As the title suggests, Vitija is more interested in highlighting Highsmith’s romantic life than in creating a straightforward biography. It elides many life events and the finer details of her artistic inspirations in favor of the relationships that most shaped her. Her upbringing in Texas feels distant, primarily conveyed through photographs. The main discussions of this period come from relatives who knew her as an adult but were one or more generations removed from the time, emphasizing the distance. One photo, seemingly foreshadowing what was to come, features Highsmith as an adorable tomboy tot with an oversized hat and unlit cigarette in her mouth, accompanied by the description “Toughie Pat.” 

Patricia Highsmith, 1942, at 21 (Rolf Tietgens, © Keith de Lellis)

The rest of the film makes similarly enlivening use of archival materials, though its most intriguing technique is weaving elements of Highsmith’s writing into its rendering of her life. Voiceovers come from two sources: Annina Butterworth as an omniscient narrator and Gwendoline Christie as Highsmith. In one sequence, audio from a recorded interview with Highsmith on the inspiration for The Price of Salt/Carol fades into Christie reading from the book itself. Clips from various Ripley film adaptations, along with Strangers on a Train and other adaptations of her work, are also utilized. It’s a pity Vitija wasn’t able to use shots from this year’s Deep Water adaptation to illustrate Highsmith’s abiding love of snails.

Highsmith’s real-life account of meeting a woman in a department store where she worked is visualized via clips from the 2015 film Carol, in which the incident is recreated between the two main characters. The book’s description and Highsmith’s recollection overlap in remarkable, poignant ways — she describes both herself and the novel’s protagonist as “swimmy in the head” while looking at an alluring customer who is “giving off light.” The panoply of voices, including those around Highsmith and her own, further underline her lifelong evolutions and contradictions — how a youth spent in conversion therapy gave way to an adulthood filled with torrid affairs, sometimes with married women.

Patricia Highsmith (Ellen Rifkin Hill, courtesy Swiss Social Archives)

It’s when the documentary aims for more conventional biography that it flounders, such as when it acknowledges Highsmith’s avowed racism and antisemitism only to brush past them, as if the acknowledgment checks some required storytelling box on its own. Vitija would have been better off either delving into those subjects more deeply or focusing more exclusively on specific facets of its subject’s life, like her romances. Loving Highsmith might not bring viewers any closer to understanding Patricia Highsmith, but perhaps it’s appropriate that she remains in many ways enigmatic. Still, the film leaves one with the sense that reading Carol might do more to illuminate her character.

Loving Highsmith opens at Film Forum (209 West Houston, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) on September 16.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.