Director Sofia Coppola explores familiar themes with the retelling of Priscilla and Elvis Presley’s love story. Read our Priscilla review.
How do you catch a feeling on celluloid? A feeling isn’t visual, yet somehow, American director Sofia Coppola manages to capture the exact feeling of falling head over heels in love with someone larger than life in Priscilla.
Coppola’s film tells the story of Priscilla Presley, who met Elvis at only 14 but stayed with him for years, eventually marrying in 1967 before leaving him in 1972. It’s a classic gilded cage story that fits neatly into Coppola’s filmography. Her interests have always lain with young women and their strange, compelling inner lives and Priscilla is no different as it empathetically follows its titular character through the highs and lows of her relationship.
Cailee Spaeny picked up the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her portrayal of Priscilla, and for good reason. Spaeny is luminous as the title character and gently guides us through all the emotion, whether its longing, heartbreak, euphoria or confusion. Coppola often frames the tiny Spaeny surrounded by the (both literally and figuratively) towering Elvis and his mates, creating an uneasy dynamic, especially in the film’s first half when Priscilla is literally teenager, hanging out with grown men.
Jacob Elordi has the incredibly difficult task of following Austin Butler’s Oscar-nominated performance as the King of Rock and Roll. Whereas Butler did a heavy accent and made Elvis into a mysterious peacock, Elordi’s performance is more muted. There’s only a hint of Elvis’ southern drawl and no quivering hips. In fact, we only see Elvis perform in front of a crowd once, as Priscilla and Elvis’ marriage is breaking down and he resides in Vegas.
It’s not a bad thing, but the comparison feels inevitable. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, for better or for worse, was all about the spectacle, while Priscilla pushes him to the sidelines to tell a story we’re less familiar with. Priscilla’s story isn’t a sob story of a woman scorned, but one of crushing loneliness.
Not long after Elvis persuades Priscilla to move in with him in Graceland, he begins to mould her into the perfect little wifey. He instructs her to wear more eye makeup and to dye her hair black and later chastises her for wearing a dress that “does nothing” for her figure. When Elvis, who is here presented as a moody, impulsive man-child who depends on Priscilla to take care of him when it suits him, leaves to go on tour or to shoot his latest film, Priscilla is left alone in Graceland, wandering the halls of a house that is arguably too big.
There’s a deep melancholy to Coppola’s work, and there always has been. There’s also a strange, almost inexplicable sense of inevitability. Much like the ending of Virgin Suicides felt tragically poetic, so does the heartbreaking conclusion of Priscilla. Of course, Priscilla is based on the real Priscilla’s experience and her book, “Elvis and Me”.
As a work of fiction, there’s very little to fault here, but it very clearly aligns itself with Priscilla’s subjective experience of her doomed relationship with the most famous man on the planet. This isn’t to say that Elvis, who the film suggests is as quick to apologise as he is to throw a chair at his wife, was an angel in any way but Coppola does leave out Priscilla’s extramarital relations. Including them wouldn’t have lessened Priscilla’s tragedy. If anything, her seeing comfort, safety and intimacy elsewhere might have furthered our understanding of her.
Priscilla is another strong Coppola film, perhaps even one of her best. It’s visually stunning and so acutely aching in its exploration of first love. Despite an abrupt ending, Priscilla manages to explore its subject with a sensitivity and empathy that provide a different kind of spectacle all of their own.
Priscilla plays at the BFI London Film Festival and in UK cinemas 5 January, 2024.
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