“I Believe Her Experience of Love Was a Brutal One”: Director Eva Vitija on Her Patricia Highsmith Doc, Loving Highsmith
With their pronounced and callous violence, their serpentine studies of obsession, delusion, and identity, Patricia Highsmith’s hypergraphic body of work has by now become as much a part of the culture of literary fiction and cinema as that of her lionized male counterparts. But where the personas of Hammett and Chandler have been crafted into legend, the Fort Worth-born Highsmith has stayed a cipher. While in recent years a pair of biographies and the release of her excerpted private diaries have let some light into the picture, Highsmith’s peripatetic nature remains elusive and secretive. Expatriated from the States and then seeking tax shelter in Switzerland in her final days, Highsmith was far from trusting, and even less inviting of attention or scrutiny, unless it was for love.
Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija’s new documentary Loving Highsmith, opening this Friday at Film Forum, seeks to draw this curtain back over the private and personal, the secret life of a writer who buried herself in her work, and who could never manage to live with others. Vitija’s film focuses on those who knew Highsmith, those who remember her firsthand and best, and who uncovered a personal dimension which she stopped at nothing to conceal. The film also serves as the centerpiece feature in a series running through September at Film Forum that includes Highsmith adaptations The American Friend, Carol, Purple Noon, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, The series and film both are highly recommended. Filmmaker spoke to Ms. Vitija in advance of the film’s opening in New York.
Filmmaker: You mentioned elsewhere that when you were a child, you vacationed with your family in the town where Highsmith lived in Switzerland, and that you were told of this local figure, this artist who lived alone and never went out. That obviously left a lasting impact. But I wonder what your first experience with reading her was.
Vitija: I probably read the The Snail Watcher as the first story. I don’t know if this was the influence to making the film; later on I read the novels. I wasn’t a huge Highsmith fan, when I went to the Swiss Literary Archives to read her unpublished notebooks, I was really pulled in. [The work in the archives] revealed such a different person and was also very different from the novel writing that she did. It really fascinated me, this private text. I focused on that in my research. It was endless, thousands of pages. This person who spoke through this private text was somehow touching and revealing more than she ever did in her other writing. How is it possible that a person can appear so different in her published work than in her private, unfiltered writing. There was also this poetic side to her that I had never known about. If you know about it, you can also find it in the novels and short stories, but it’s never the same focus.
Filmmaker: Did you consume the fiction as well?
Vitija: Yes, and all the films. But I started with the Archives. I went to visit her family first. I wasn’t sure that it was possible to make a film because getting access is never easy. I thought, probably we will not have enough images for a film. This is always the issue when making a film about a writer. But I was with the family and they just let me go through their stuff. They were not even sure what was in all the boxes. And we found these beautiful photos of her when she was young, the young Patricia Highsmith, and I knew it was possible.
Filmmaker: It is a trove of material that you uncovered. Were the notebooks you used the same that Diogenes released in the last few years?
Vitija: It’s the same material, but it’s collected and edited. I didn’t have the published version yet. It was just her handwriting. It made it more of a detective story than anything. Also I did my research years before the release. So we were working with the same base, but we do not have the same quotations. They published 800 pages and it was 8000 in the beginning.
Filmmaker: The way she is depicted in the film, it becomes clear that you as the director have come into contact with a part of her that no one else has. For a long time there was only a pair of biographies. This is the first proper portrait of her as far as cinema goes.
Vitija: Well using her own text was an attempt to do what she does in her novels. Go deep inside a person, so deeply into their psychology, until you discover a secret truth. In her novels, this realization is usually that the person in question is completely insane —
Filmmaker: Certainly in my favorite of hers. She rejected that crime fiction mantle throughout her life, and it’s telling that books like Edith’s Diary, Carol, The Cry of the Owl, end up being the more subtle and humanely concerned works, where the suspense is entirely psychological. But going back to that first time you heard about her as a young girl, did you ever catch sight of her at that age?
Vitija: I might have even met her without realizing it, but I didn’t know what she looked like. I had actually completely forgotten about it until I was in the middle of my research.
Filmmaker: So you were already working on the film?
Vitija: Yes, I remembered that my parents had spoken about her, that the writer they had referred to and told me about was in fact her.
Filmmaker: That’s some serious synchronicity. So your first brush with artistry, that impression was based entirely on local lore. A legend.
Vitija: Yes. I was very young and it stuck with me.
Filmmaker: Your first documentary Das Leben Drehen [My Life as a Film], utilized the trove of personal home movies your father, the documentarian Joschy Scheidegger, made of you and your family when you were growing up. In your approach, does this film connect at all with your previous work and in turn with the influence your father’s work had on you as a director? In your first film and this one you are creating personal, confessional glimpses into the lives of artists. And both films act as a continuation and conversation with those artists. Is it a parallel experience, your interaction with Highsmith?
Vitija: It’s obviously a very different film, and I have a completely different standpoint in this because I was less a part of the story than the film about my father. Both are films about artists, dead people, which I try to make live again. To give a feeling of knowing who the person is. There’s really only so many similarities in general. I had made a film about an obsessive man and decided I wanted my next to be about a woman. She came up, and I knew it had to be here. The film ended up not being so much about her obsessions. She had of course many.
Filmmaker: It felt organic to go from one to the next?
Vitija: Yes, exactly. But we didn’t know if people were still alive who would remember her, and I didn’t want to make a film where we relied upon the “expert” point of view — the literary expert, I mean.
Filmmaker: Right, you go directly to first-hand sources, people who actually knew her.
Vitija: There’s plenty of people who could talk about her works, her life. I wanted to have this private insight. I think that’s the main blindspot in her biographies, both of which were very good and well researched, but the public picture of her was something I thought needed the added dimension of her love life. She writes about everything. Daily life, politics, crime. But the main topics of her notebooks are writing and love. Writing was perhaps always a bit on top of everything.
Filmmaker: Your film views her through that complicated prism of portraying someone as intentionally remote but also full of desire. It does seem empathic to her human experience but also toward the cliched plight of an artist, someone compelled by a vocation to a solitary function. It’s a natural consequence that anyone would feel lonesome in that kind of life.
Vitija: Well I think she was so much more emotional than you could imagine from her public face and published work. A lot of people I met thought of her as having a cold, analytical, observational quality. But in the personal text, there was someone emotionally attached and interested in brutality because she was sensitive and affected by everything and everyone she touched.
Filmmaker: That pain and heartache imbues all her characters with this angst and frustration, and after watching the film it seems like this was a representation of how she felt drawn inward and away from others, often at the cost of her own functionality. As much as she wanted and desired their company, their companionship, she was driven in this calling that stood in direct conflict with her need to find someone. It’s almost as if she wrote the happy ending for Carol so she could will that kind of fated turn into her own life. She wanted it so very much.
Vitija: She tried to train away those traits of her character. She tried to harden herself emotionally to get through life, because it was so hard for her. And I think as you can see in her physical appearance, she is always hiding. Pulling the hair in front of her face, and so on. As she grew older she drew her shoulders up and seemed like she was hiding from the world somehow, perhaps because it was too brutal for her to endure.
Filmmaker: She says in her diaries that “writing of course is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live,” and then later on refers to it as “the only way to feel respectable.” It seems like her fantasy was a world where the rules fell away to desire and profit, and that this might have been in turn because she was depressive, she was an addict, she was walled up inside her own cell to some extent. She buried herself in this fictional realm because she felt unable to live a normal life and was burdened by her inclinations and dependencies.
Vitija: Well, why else was violence so great a part of her works? Deception and murder. I have a different view of it now than I did when I began.
Filmmaker: How has your viewpoint evolved?
Vitija: I believe her experience of love was a brutal one, that she experienced love as a form of violence against her, that somehow struck her identity and shook her.