Credit: A24
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Priscilla — Sofia Coppola

October 24, 2023

Sofia Coppola has been chronicling the private spaces and inner lives of young women for her entire career and her new film Priscilla — an adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me — feels like the culmination of a twenty-plus-year project that simultaneously reveals the limitations to her approach. Even as one of the most famous significant others of the twentieth century, Priscilla remained something of an enigmatic figure, kept far from the spotlight and handled by her more famous husband’s go-betweens (most notability Elvis’ father Vernon and manager Colonel Tom Parker) while being subject to speculation, lionization, and envy from millions of women. Who was this person who, as a teenager, claimed the heart of the King of Rock & Roll, and to what extent did her life reflect the fairy tale fed to a rapturous public? And what kind of life can someone have as a wife and mother — to say nothing of being a well-rounded, spiritually-fulfilled individual — if they exist only as a prop to further someone else’s celebrity?

We’re introduced to 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Mare of Easttown’s Cailee Spaeny), a lonely military brat living near a U.S. Air Force base in 1959 Germany. Lifted out of obscurity while sitting at a lunch counter, Priscilla is approached by a friendly officer who proffers the sort of invitation most teenagers at the time could only dream about: would she like to go to a small gathering held at Elvis Presley’s house? Presley (Jacob Elordi), having enlisted in the Army a year earlier to avoid the draft (and offset mounting controversy back in the States, or so the story goes) is homesick and simply wants to surround himself with other Americans. That Priscilla is a well-mannered southern girl in addition to being adorable made her ideal for Elvis, if only she could convince her parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) to let her out of the house to spend time alone with a rockstar ten years her senior.

The film is at its most perceptive in these early scenes, presenting a series of chaperoned encounters during which Priscilla penetrates Elvis’ inner sanctum and discovers it’s all sweetly normal; everyone just sits around eating comfort food or congregates around the piano where Presley holds court. Elordi doesn’t really look or sound like the King (his accent tends to fall off into unintelligible caricature), but there’s something quite smart about the way the film utilizes the actor’s towering height. It’s as though he can’t hide anywhere in the frame and therefore draws the viewer’s attention constantly (the height disparity between the two leads also does wonders in selling the age difference). While Coppola may not have been able to secure the rights to Presley’s musical catalog, this is very much the officially sanctioned telling of the relationship, which the film depicts as entirely chaste for an incredulously long time. Elvis behaves as the consummate gentleman in his private moments with Priscilla, showing up accompanied by Vernon, hat in hand, to ask the Beaulieus for permission to date their daughter. As their relationship progresses, the film seems to head off any accusations of “grooming” by having Elvis repeatedly withhold sex to the point it begins to drive Priscilla a little mad. As if to put an exclamation point on the entire topic, we even get a scene where she demands he put down the giant philosophy book he’s consumed with and take her damn virginity already. But what Coppola conveys so effectively is just how impossible it is for Priscilla to resume her old life as a regular teenage girl. She wanders the halls of school in a daze and dispassionately eats meatloaf at the dinner table, forever changed after having brushed up against the most famous man on earth, a fact only exacerbated by Presley returning to America in 1960 and forgetting about her for three years. As the calendar pages whip over from one year to the next with no contact from Elvis, Priscilla lives and dies with each new record he puts out or tabloid article that documents his latest splashy romance. Did she dream the entire courtship, and will she be able to ever resume a “normal” life?

We never do find out, as Presley re-establishes contact during Priscilla’s senior year of high school and convinces the Beaulieus to put their daughter on a plane to Memphis. Enrolled in a local Catholic school with Vernon serving as her temporary guardian, Priscilla moves into Graceland while Elvis heads off to Hollywood to shoot movies. It’s a dynamic that Coppola has explored at length in films like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere — where a young woman is effectively marooned in the most exciting place on earth, constantly surrounded by glimmering distractions and worldly possessions while remaining fundamentally unmoored, as though her life can’t actually begin. Like Versailles before it, Coppola treats Graceland as a liminal space, enticing to the outside world, but also cold and isolated even when it’s filled with people; it’s an inherently unwelcoming place where Priscilla’s traded freedom for comfort and her every movement scrutinized (she’s even chastised for playing with her new puppy on the lawn, in plain view of fans gathering by the front gate). Upon telling Elvis that she might take an afterschool job at a local boutique — more out of boredom than financial necessity — he presents her with a chilling ultimatum: she can have a career or she can be his girl, but if it’s the latter he expects her to be on standby, awaiting his every beck and call. And all the while Priscilla must contend with persistent rumors of Elvis’ affairs (which he less than convincingly denies by flying into a rage whenever the subject is broached) as well as his casual pharmaceutical drug use which couldn’t possibly portend of larger problems down the road.

Priscilla is caught between exploring Coppola’s widely assumed interests and oft-revisited motifs, and fulfilling the crushing obligations of being a biopic, albeit one exploring its subject from a historically overlooked perspective. Its titular character doesn’t have any actual agency here; the power imbalance is so insurmountable that for much of the film she’s treated as a willing prisoner or almost literally a doll for Elvis to stylize and accessorize; once Presley gets heavily involved with firearms, he starts buying pistols for Priscilla that match her outfits. It’s somewhat illuminating, even if little new ground is uncovered here, with some of the film’s more indelible moments being those proven too thematically inconvenient for Baz Luhrmann Oscar-nominated Elvis last year. Coppola’s primarily concerned with the ephemeral qualities of the couple’s whirlwind romance, conveyed best in scenes far from the public eye, like teenaged Priscilla being whisked off to casinos by Elvis and strolling out into the morning light, arm-in-arm and in matching sunglasses, or movie dates where Presley mouths the dialogue alongside Bogart (underscoring his unfulfilled desire of becoming a serious actor), or observing the low-rent antics on the grounds of Graceland where the gang fires off guns and commandeers a bulldozer to tear down a neighboring domicile, it all coming across like a hillbilly Eden. And as a coffee table book or Spotify playlist, the film mostly succeeds with its period fashions and hairstyles — textures you can practically reach out and touch — alongside anachronistic soundtrack cuts that mitigate the music rights issue while setting the film outside of time (the first tentative moment of intimacy between Elvis and Priscilla is set to Tommy James & the Shondells’ 1968 version of “Crimson & Clover”).  

But there is also a thudding inevitability to the film: a trap of obligation that even a filmmaker as resourceful as Coppola is unable to escape. There’s a reason most of Coppola’s films take place over days or weeks, and not the fourteen years covered by Priscilla. Impressionism tends to be more effective in capturing a snapshot of time; stretched out to half a lifetime, it can start to become enervating and reminiscent of a compendium of familiar incidents. Whatever the film’s intentions, déjà vu sets in as we watch Elvis trying on the iconic black leather jumpsuit for the ‘68 comeback special, becoming dependent on pills just to get in and out of bed, or losing himself to the haze and spirit-snuffing repetition of his Vegas residency. These events are all presented from the point of view of a concerned bystander and occasional victim of cycles of abuse, but it does become fair to ask, “didn’t we just see all of this, like, a year ago?” There is a natural endpoint to this particular story of a young woman escaping the clutches of a domineering lover, but Priscilla’s final thirty-minutes are rudderless. The film becomes less a series of thrilling choices or decisions to frame a well-documented life from a particularly novel angle, but rather, returns to the same conflicts we have already watched play out at length, only now without the glow of first love or the thrill of access or material goods to distract us. Did Priscilla leave Elvis because she finally developed into an independent woman, or had he devolved to such a shaggy, pill-addled figure of pity by the mid-70’s that she could no longer maintain the delusion of a storybook romance? It’s a question the film isn’t especially interested in, which feels like a missed opportunity as it otherwise situates us so firmly behind the eyes of its titular subject. Still, the film concludes with a wonderfully curated and unconventional needle drop, obvious in hindsight. It is a Sofia Coppola film after all.

DIRECTOR: Sofia Coppola;  CAST: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS: November 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.