A focus on the author's lesbianism provides for a rather slim portrait

This new film focuses on Patricia Highsmith's love life. But, while seeking to widen our understanding of this beloved and very famous writer (and author of the much-adapted and addictive Tom Ripley novels), the filmmakers may tend somewhat to narrow it. Like many writers she lived largely through her writing but her books aren't adequately depicted. There's plenty of use of the fiction films for illustrative clips, with a closeup look at Matt Damon trying to bludgeon somebody in a rowboat and several glimpses of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in The Price of Salt, now known as Carol and since 1990 published openly under Highsmith's own name and reportedly the first "girls book" with a happy ending. There are a couple of clips from other Ripley films, including Hitchcock's masterful version of the author's first novel, Strangers on a Train, but they are only a glimpse of the many film adaptations of her work.

There are interviews with former lovers - that's what is new here, along with an interview with some Texas relatives. The excerpts from interviews with Highsmith herself, certainly necessary images of the person, who can't can't be interviewed anew - she died at 74 in 1995 - come from earlier, more interesting films. And even those fascinating interviews and the best Ripley film adaptations, those of René Clément and Liliana Cavani in particular, not glimpsed here - nothing compares with the joy and compulsion of reading the books. Curiously, the filmmaker Eva Vitija, who says it was the writer's diaries that led to her fascination with the author, enters her own film as a character, momentarily seeming an impossibly young former lover but only to delineate the origins of her interest. It's surprising that Edith's Diary isn't mentioned.

The information that she was a lesbian is hardly new to any well-read Patricia Highsmith fan. But the somewhat belated point of this film is that now the truth can be more freely talked about. And a few of Highsmith's many lovers can talk about it, and her. One especially (Marijane Meaker) with a smart mannish bob, now white, looks directly into the camera in a way that gives the sense of everything under control. Alas she recounts eventually finding Patricia's morning glass of orange juice was largely vodka. She couldn't live with somebody like that, and the relationship ended. This is a thread that is curiously dropped. Was the busy author an alcoholic or was this only a phase? Drinking is never mentioned again.

Some have described Highsmith as depressive but others talk about her charm and sense of humor. In her later years she appears to have been more and more a loner, and her move from a country cottage in France to the colder world of Switzerland to escape tax problems seems to have isolated her. We hear that she "hated" being interviewed and then see how eloquent and interesting her replies to interviewers could be. After Loving Highsmith she only seems more mysterious and probably one of those many writers whose books are more interesting than their lives anyway. There are reportedly 8,000 pages of those personal notebooks and diaries; also like many writers Highsmith confided most openly in her own journals. Though Gwendoline Christie's voice reading from Highsmith's lines brings her personal voice to life, one is left with a sense that while this film has a pleasing texture of images and sound, the dish it serves up is a rather meager one. As has happened before with specialized documentary portraits, the "Patricia Highsmith" Wikipedia entry provides a wider ranging picture of the woman (not that all we learn there is appealing: she had some offensive prejudices). Though being a lesbian was obviously an important aspect of who she was, Patricia Highsmith should not be taken over as a "queer" writer. She belongs to everyone as much as Shakespeare and Walt Whitman do.

Loving Highsmith falls short as an introduction to her work, though one clip worth repeating is the one where she talks about her creation, Tom Ripley - leaving him most of all his own creation, and ultimately a mystery, like her. One of the best statements about the work remains Graham Greene's, not repeated here, that "she has created a world of her own — a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder." The categorizers and anatomizers can neither eliminate nor illuminate that danger. The reader finds it for herself. After all, this film may lead her there and if so it has done no harm.

Loving Highsmith, 84 mins., debuted in Germany and France in March and April 2022 and was first shown in the US a Provincetown June 16. US theatrical release begins Sept. 2, 2022; opens at the Roxie, San Francisco Sept. 9.