Patricia Highsmith: Swiss film-makers turn the writer into a character

As Patricia Highsmith’s centennial draws to a close, a new Swiss documentary about the controversial writer will open the 2022 Solothurn Film Festival, and another one is currently in production. Her legacy of misanthropic characters whose crimes usually pay off, seems to have no time to die. 

This content was published on December 24, 2021 - 09:00

At the end of November, SWI learnt that Loving Highsmith, a documentary produced in part by both the Swiss public television channels SRF (German) and RSI (Italian), will serve as the opening event of the 2022 Solothurn Film FestivalExternal link (running through January 19-26), whose complete line-up was recently unveiled. Mere days after the announcement, the Ticino Film Commission revealedExternal link that a second documentary about Patricia Highsmith is currently in production in the Italian-speaking part of the country, where the American novelist spent the final stretch of her life – she died in Locarno in 1995 and is buried in the nearby village of Tegna. 

The double whammy is a remarkable way to end what has been quite an intense year of Highsmith highlights. Her 100th anniversary was celebrated on January 19 and as fate would have it, Loving Highsmith will celebrate its world premiere on the day of her 101st anniversary, before opening in theaters on March 11. The film is directed by the Basel-born Eva Vitija,External link who got the idea for the project after coming across Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks and discovering a whole other side of the author’s life and personality. 

Much like her most famous creation, the amoral and hedonistic con artist and serial killer Tom Ripley (soon to return to the screen in a television series produced by the cable network Showtime), Highsmith’s identity was a complex one; her homosexuality forced her to lead a double life. While her sexual tendency was no secret to those close to her, she attempted to “cure” herself via psychotherapy to prevent her personal life from damaging her career. 

She also adopted the pseudonym Claire Morgan when she first published her novel The Price of Salt (1952), featuring a lesbian love story. It wasn’t until 1990, five years before her death, that the novel was republished under her real name and with a new title, Carol, which was retained for the 2015 film adaptation. The Ripley stories, much like the author’s debut novel Strangers on a Train, can also be interpreted through a queer lens, although Highsmith herself downplayed any gay tendencies when discussing the killer’s personality. 

The ‘nasty’ side

Duality was also a key component of her personal writings, which were published last month after painstaking editing. Eight thousand pages of diary entries and notebooks were transformed into a 1,000-page tome. In addition to English, she wrote her private musings in German and French, among others – ostensibly to improve her learning of those languages, but also to conceal some of her more unsavoury views. She was frequently racist and violently anti-Semitic – presumably what The Guardian refers to when saying some passages of the diaries are “nasty”External link

These aspects may shock readers for the very simple reason that they’ve so far largely evaded mainstream coverage. While the bigotry of, say, H.P. LovecraftExternal link were an integral part of his literary persona for decades, Highsmith’s prejudices were more of an open secret, occasionally mentioned but rarely in a significant manner. 

A textbook example of this is a 2015 Guardian piece authored by Phyllis NagyExternal link, who adapted Carol for the screen and befriended Highsmith in 1987. In describing a visit to the author’s Swiss lodgings, she briefly compares her friend to an embarrassing elderly relative with outdated views, mentioning her generally conservative mindset and her support for Palestine, which “often teetered into outright antisemitism.”

Whether either documentary will address these facets remains to be seen. The Solothurn press release and quotes from the director suggest that Loving Highsmith will be more about her romantic endeavors – a worthwhile subject in its own right, especially since she casually jumped from one partner to the next with little concern for hurt feelings along the way. Her diaries make note of former lovers attempting suicide. 

Still, that Highsmith should continue to engender such interest from filmmakers remains a notable achievement, given the high caliber of the work based on her writings. Her first novel was brought to the screen by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, and Tom Ripley has been portrayed by stars such as Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich (for the upcoming Showtime series, the role has been assigned to Irish actor Andrew Scott, best known for playing Moriarty on SherlockExternal link). 

As the centenary year comes to a close, we can look forward to more Highsmith screen material in the months to come, with the added bonus of those works being able to shine a light on the southern areas of Switzerland. 

Spotlight on Switzerland

This is also part of an effort of the Ticino Film Commission : to increase awareness of the region outside of its linguistic confines. In a presentation that took place during the Castellinaria Film Festival in mid-November, the Commission obtained funding to translate scripts to make them more readily accessible for interested parties in the French- and German-speaking part of Switzerland who may not necessarily speak Italian. 

In that sense, it is fitting – unintentional though it may have been – that one of the first major national releases of 2022 is a portrait of an international cultural figure, and the result of a partnership between two countries (Switzerland and Germany), as well as two regional units of the Swiss Public Broadcasting Corporation (of which SWI is a part). And while the title of the documentary, Loving Highsmith, may not apply to all aspects of Highsmith’s life, it certainly works as a token of appreciation for her role in the Swiss cultural sphere. 


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