November 2, 2023
What’s most evident about Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is how much it is the antithesis of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis from last year. The Australian showman’s authorized propaganda piece (I don’t mean that as derisively as it sounds, all biopics are propaganda to some degree) lit up the marquee signs at the multiplexes thanks to its bright cinematography, fast-paced editing, and roaring soundtrack. Coppola’s film will subsist within arthouses and the back of the multiplexes as she trades all that in for a somber mood, silence so deafening that a you could hear a pin drop, and a soundtrack so devoid of Elvis hits that you would think he was a one-hit wonder. Of course, as per the title, Coppola shifts away from The King and examines the woman who constantly lived in his shadow, someone who only got one scene in Luhrmann’s rendition (and looked about twice as old as she was supposed to be).
Actually, scratch all that. The most evident thing about Priscilla is the star-in-the-making presence of Cailee Spaeny, a growing sentiment considering her Best Actress win at this year’s Venice Film Festival. She’d been relegated to playing the younger versions of lead characters to this point: young Lynne Cheney in Vice, the daughter of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, and young Eleanor Roosevelt seen only in flashbacks in The First Lady. She is technically playing the younger version of a real person here, but this time the focus is entirely on her. That expanded canvas allows her to spread her wings, showcasing an immense talent to hold your attention and convincingly play across an elongated timeline.
We first meet Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany circa 1959. Her father has been stationed at the local Army base, making her the loneliest American in all of Bavaria. Just like it were a fairy tale, the sad girl gets her wish when an Army captain asks her to come along and meet Elvis Presley, who’s also been stationed abroad. He’s undeniable, a beaming example of Americana that seems to have leapt off the posters to fulfill her wildest fantasies. He’s ecstatic to bring her into his world, and she’s naively happy to go along for the ride. Quickly comes a move to Graceland, marriage, a child, and the duties of being a reliable homemaker to the most desirable man in the world.
Coppola’s film is at its best in the beginning as she explores the morally questionable inception of the couple’s relationship. She was 14 and he was 24, but Elvis was always kind and courteous, and she was emotionally mature for her age. Despite their initial hesitations, her parents consented to their star-crossed union. Coppola doesn’t heavily lean to one side or the other, instead offering evidence for both camps. There are moments of both intentional and unintentional grooming on the part of Elvis, as well as Priscilla imprudently rushing in without understanding what she’s signing up for.
What’s less interesting about Priscilla is what happens once the dust settles. Graceland quickly morphs from a luxurious palace into a gilded cage where Priscilla is forced to spend her most youthful days. She’s not allowed to leave the compound without supervision, and also not allowed to bring anyone in. It’s a more subdued version of Pablo Larraín’s duology (soon to be trilogy) of Jackie and Spencer as Priscilla is a prisoner in a dream, caught in a cycle that doesn’t become more impactful despite Coppola’s insistence on keeping it on loop.
That lack of energy is almost a winking joke on Coppola’s part as she takes one of the most charismatic men in entertainment history and reveals him to be a scared child doing his best to masquerade as an adult. Jacob Elordi sees Elvis as someone who always wants to stay in control, but never does anything of value to maintain it. He’s lucky that his looks and sphere of influence do all the work for him.
Fantasy slowly catching up to reality is often a theme of Sofia Coppola’s filmography and, along with Marie Antoinette, this is one of its most clear historical instances. It’s the more authentic version of the story Luhrmann avoided telling, although it is missing some much-needed spectacle that he could have shared. At the very least, Spaeny should join the ranks of Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, and Elle Fanning, all of whom Coppola announced to the world through her work.