In a body of work populated by many an obsessive, David Kelsey, the protagonist of Highsmith’s seventh novel This Sweet Sickness (1960), is a real specimen. A seemingly prosperous engineer, he is completely infatuated with Annabelle, an ex-girlfriend who is now happily married to another man. So all consuming is David’s passion that he creates a whole other identity under the name William Neumeister and spends his free time preparing a house for himself and Annabelle to live in. Highsmith called Kelsey ‘a man obsessed with his emotion’ and in the first lines of the novel, she writes that: ‘He had so long lived with this jealousy […] that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation.’
This Sweet Sickness was first filmed by Paul Henreid as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962 with Dean Stockwell as Kelsey. Fifteen years later came a feature-length French adaptation from director Claude Miller. It stars Gérard Dépardieu as accountant David Martineau, whose obsession with Lise (Dominique Laffin) knows no bounds.
While praising the actor’s intensity, Highsmith felt that physically, Dépardieu’s Martineau was a significant departure from her original character. ‘He happens to be a sturdy man with the physique of a wrestler’ she wrote, ‘not as I envisaged Kelsey.’ The author also remarked on the heightened ‘earthiness’ of Miller and Luc Béraud’s screenplay, the sexually explicit nature of some of the dialogue (ironically, at one point Martineau’s exasperated landlord/neighbour exclaims ‘Everyone is sex-crazed – you’ve turned my house into a knocking shop!’). While uncomfortable at times, the amping up of the story’s violent emotion was clearly intended to appeal to a late 70s audience rather than the late 50s audience of the novel, as was the film’s eclectic soundtrack, which blends classical pieces by Mozart and Schubert with contemporary pop from the likes of Thelma Houston and Paul Anka.