Patricia Highsmith (1921–95), author of the five psychological thrillers featuring murderous Tom Ripley and 17 other novels, acquired a late reputation as an anti-Semite, racist, miser, and misanthrope. Eva Vitija, the director of the eye-opening documentary Loving Highsmith, thinks the “weird sister” vibe was partly self-manufactured.

As an example, Vitija recounts Highsmith’s memory—shared by her Doubleday editor Larry Ashmead in Andrew Wilson’s 2003 biography, Beautiful Shadow—of sneaking 6 to 10 of her pet snails under each of her breasts each time she entered France during her move there from England, in 1967.

“Wow!” the Swiss filmmaker exclaims. “And you can see how her stories are probably not always exactly the truth, because if you see her breasts”—in the photo of the topless 21-year-old Highsmith taken by her friend Rolf Tietgens—“you know it would have been impossible to smuggle snails under them. It says a lot about how she created her image.”

Highsmith, in a still from Eva Vitija’s film.

As a child, Vitija vacationed several times with her parents in Tegna, a village in Ticino, and knew about the famous writer who lived there with snails and cats.

“When I later read her diaries and notebooks, a totally different person spoke out of them—a sympathetic, emotional person who was not only vulnerable but romantic,” Vitija says. “You’d never expect that from reading her novels. When I contacted her girlfriends and other people who knew her privately, they all said she had this very touching core. It was clear my focus would be her love life.”

Loving Highsmith, currently on at New York’s Film Forum, traces the heartbreaking formative years of a kid born into a Texas rodeo family and shuttled between New York City and Fort Worth by her divorced mother, Mary, who told her she’d tried to abort her. The celebrity author of Strangers on a Train by the time she was 30, Highsmith expended her private life frantically seeking a version of maternal love in liaisons with numerous women.

Farley Granger, left, and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film based on Highsmith’s novel.

“She really had a thing for her mother,” says the pioneering queer novelist Marijane Meaker in the film, “but it was not returned except in the meanest, snidest way: ‘If you like me so much, why don’t you dress like a woman?’” In her Highsmith memoir, Meaker, now 95, recalls Highsmith “looking like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev” when they met in a New York lesbian bar. They lived harmoniously in Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1961 until Highsmith’s drinking and Meaker’s hostility ended their relationship.

In addition to Meaker, Vitija interviewed on-camera other Highsmith lovers: the late German actress-artist Tabea Blumenschein and the French teacher-translator Monique Buffet. None describes Highsmith as a harridan. The picture that emerges is of a woman terminally uneasy in her skin. The tension between guilt and guiltlessness in Highsmith, embodied by Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), was never resolved, though she did come out toward the end of her life.

Loving Highsmith accomplishes something biographies can’t. Through stills and documentary footage, it emphasizes her evolving physical presence—from Our Gang–like foundling and beautiful stripling through ailing crone. “She hid behind her hair when she was young, then her shoulders moved up during the course of her life,” Vitija says. “My feeling was that she was so closely touched by so many things she couldn’t bear, she had to protect herself.”

An analogy with a snail withdrawing into its shell is tempting, yet, Vitija adds, Highsmith could be open about her private life and enjoyed her friends. “Somehow the image of her as a somber lady never disappeared,” she says. Nor has the formidable femme de lettres.

Loving Highsmith is showing at Film Forum, in New York, through September 8

Graham Fuller is a New York–based film critic