Consider the fascinating documentary Loving Highsmith, a kind of film about film, but once or thrice removed. Those in the literary know, know Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) as a distinctive novelist who found a way to channel existentialism and suspense elements into tales coolly questioning morality and social norms. Film fans of all intensities are aware of the better-known of numerous screen adaptations of her work — namely Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which effectively launched her career, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Todd Haynes’ Carol.
The latter film, with a typically spot-on performance by Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara as her young lover, represents a critical aspect of Highsmith’s personal life, and a central focus of this documentary. She was a lesbian in an era frowning on such an orientation, raised in the strongly hetero-rodeo family in Texas and estranged from a cold-hearted mother. She lived her life mostly in closeted and semi closeted ways, even penning the famous lesbian novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, later republished under her own name, as Carol.
True to the title of the documentary, Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija has created a fascinating and artful tapestry of a bio on Highsmith, in a form anchored by interviews with Highsmith’s former lovers — the “loving” cast. Vitilja also weaves together snippets of diary entries and later Highsmith interviews (at one point she addresses, in a diary, “the profound indignity of being interviewed, like a patient on a table, where the doctor says ‘take off all your clothes’”).
Enhancing the mix and sense of period are elements of archival footage and such colorful drop-in scenery as rodeo clips, reminders of Highsmith’s haunting Texan memories. Refreshingly, Noël Akchoté’s earthy-yet-enigmatic music score — featuring guitar greats Bill Frisell and Mary Halvorson — supplies sonic intrigue befitting the subject, in contrast to the generic music beds often lathered onto docs.
The talented Miss Highsmith wrote five novels about Tom Ripley, a charismatic figure who gets away with murder. It has been said that Ripley was her alter ego. These and other revealing tidbits await in this strangely tantalizing doc. Loving Highsmith opens at the Riviera Theatre on September 23.