“Loving Highsmith,” a new documentary based on the American crime novelist’s personal writings about her lovers and family, has been acquired by Filmcoopi and Salzgeber & Co for distribution in Switzerland and Germany. Salzgeber & Co will release “Loving Highsmith” in Germany, Filmcoopi in Switzerland.
The film, in post-production, was presented Sunday at a Swiss Films Previews showcase held at Swiss doc fest Visions du Réel (VdR).
Produced by Switzerland’s Ensemble Film, the documentary is directed by Eva Vitija, a Swiss screenwriter who was nominated for Emerging Documentary Filmmaker at the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles in 2016 for her first feature documentary “My Life as a Film: How My Father Tried to Capture Happiness,” which was also nominated for Best Documentary at the Swiss Film Awards in 2017.
At VdR, the film’s producers are looking for an international sales agents to tie down completion finance and distribution before the film’s expected release during the summer of 2021 – a landmark year that would have seen Patricia Highsmith celebrate her 100th birthday.
Known for writing famed psychological thrillers, including “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train,” but also for the lesbian romance “The Price of Salt” (later republished under the title “Carol”), Highsmith is regarded as one of the most complex and fascinating novelists of the twentieth century.
Eva Vitija, herself a writer, came upon the idea of making a film on this mysterious woman’s private life almost by accident. Initially, Vitija was interested in making a film about an obsessive woman to follow her film on her obsessive father. After Highsmith’s name was recommended by a producer, Vitija jumped on the idea to make a film about the novelist, whom she had fantasized about since her childhood in the Swiss mountains, where Highsmith lived for 13 years, passing away in 1995.
“My first memory of Highsmith goes way back to my childhood,” Vitija said. “We used to go on holiday in the same village in Ticino [in the Italian part of Switzerland, where Patricia Highsmith spent the last years of her life. My parents told me that there was this very famous crime writer living there, alone with her cats. The way they talked about her had something which was both exciting and frightening.”
Vitija went into the film project unsure if a film about Highsmith could really be made and whether she could bring something new to the table. It was when she finally got access to Highsmith’s personal journals and letters, stored at the Swiss Literary Archives, that Vitija knew she had the material to make a personal film about a multifaceted woman.
“It was a Patricia Highsmith completely different from the one I was reading about in biographies or mainly articles in newspapers,” the director said. The diaries revealed the novelist’s “wildly romantic and poetic side,” detailing both her lesbian love affairs and her difficult upbringing in a conservative Texan family.
“Loving Highsmith” focuses on these little-known details of Highsmith’s private life, including exclusive interviews with people like Marijane Meaker, a writer who lived with Patricia Highsmith around the late fifties who recounts how it was to live as a lesbian couple in the U.S. at the time.
“Patrica Highsmith was a child of her time. And she wasn’t fighting for gay rights,” Vitija said. The novelist occupies an uneasy space in the queer literary canon, as academics have noted her tendency to mix homoeroticism with homicide in her novels.
“For her, love is such a brutal experience that extinguished her as a person that it is an experience of death, so murder is never far. In the love-scenes of ‘Carol’ and how she describes them, death is always around the corner,” Vitija said.
It’s undoubtedly the character of Tom Ripley that is Highsmith’s greatest creation, first seen in her 1955 thriller “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Adapted many times to the big screen, the fictional character has been played by no less than Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, and more recently Andrew Scott in the hotly anticipated Showtime series “Ripley.”
“Some say that Patricia Highsmith sometimes even signed letters saying ‘aka Tom Ripley’ because she identified so much with her most famous character,” Vitija said. “I could not find this particular letter. But what I found I this: Patricia Highsmith admired Tom Ripley a lot in the way he could get rid of any feeling of guilt. Isn’t’ it a feeling that everyone can relate to? How free one must feel without any feeling of guilt!”
Beyond its cinema release coordinated with partners Filmcoopi and Salzgeber, Swiss public broadcasters SRF and RSI and Germany’s ZDF and Arte are already attached as co-producers, meaning the film will be broadcasted on those platforms at a later date.
The film producers are also looking to organize a special release for the documentary in collaboration with the independent literary publishers Diogenes, the copyright owners of Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries and Notebooks. Diogenes will make these writings available in eight territories in Fall 2021, an event which The Guardian has already called “one of the literary highlights of 2021.”