Updated: Nov 29
Sofia Coppola's latest brings a more complex take on the famous relationship
Despite growing older, Sofia Coppola has retained the ability to capture the perspective of adolescent girls. From her breakout in The Virgin Suicides (1999) to The Bling Ring (2013) and to the young women’s minds of Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006). As such, taking on the life of Priscilla Presley, who became Elvis’ partner at age 14 was a no-brainer pairing for the American director.
Priscilla (2023) follows the life of Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), starting in 1959 when as a highschool freshman expat on a US military base in West Germany, meets celebrity singer Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). We witness Priscilla become pulled in irresistibly by the stardom of the 24-year-old singer, to an extent where she loses sight of herself.
Coppola’s immersive and claustrophobic view of Priscilla’s life, restraining her showier elements from previous films for an observant tone works perfectly for Priscilla’s story. We see Elvis grooming young Priscilla matter-of-factly, never does Coppola tell you how to feel. Viewers are left to digest these scenes and conclude discomfort by themselves. One can see younger girls seeing the same scenes and imagining Harry Styles or Jacob Elordi treating them similarly and swooning. This vague observant tone shows the treacherous nature unequal power dynamics in relationships, while also showing the irresistible allure it can have on the younger halves of such a pair.
Prisicilla’s take Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship (which was conveniently left out of last year’s Elvis (2022)) engrosses Coppola, and her comfort zone of inhabiting an adolescent’s mind leads to it becoming most of the film’s runtime. As such, we spend a lot of time accompanying the imprisonment and repression of Priscilla from Elvis, his violent outbursts, and quick apologies. We learn alongside Priscilla how to adjust one’s behavior to keep Elvis happy and stay in The King’s good graces.
It is in the demystifying of Elvis’ myth that Coppola finds her narrative objective. Sadly, this exploration of self-discovery is rushed and abbreviated. We spend much more time on Priscilla entering Elvis’ life for nearly an hour and a half before the film is forced to wrap up in her adult stages. This leads to Priscilla’s finale softening its emotional blow. A shortened first act of Elvis revealing himself as controlling and manipulative would have liberated more time to see her character evolve towards her liberating ending.
Austin Butler’s take on Elvis seemed as definitive a performance as we might get last year, yet the casting done in Priscilla gives it quite a run for its money. Spaeny, who first impressed me in her small but impactful role in Mare of Easttown (2021) delivers an enrapturing performance. She must rely on the most restrained and subtle of performances, interpreting a woman, famous for being silent. With the smallest of glances or shuddering suppressed sighs, Spaeny transmits the slow desperation, awe, and fear that her character undergoes in silence. It is a performance that captures the suffering and resistance of the 1950s stereotypical housewife role in a way unlike any in recent cinema. Elordi as Elvis, meanwhile, gives Butler a run for his money, not only in his imitation, but in his uncanny resemblance. Elordi is given more complex material than the Baz Luhrman biopic of 2022, and with it squeezes out a fascinating exploration of the darkness and insecurity of the mythic figure as any biopic before. The casting also works in another curious way, by having 6’5” Elordi tower over 5’1” Spaeny, showing the further imbalance of power in their relationship in a visual as well as emotional way.
Helping the performers truly delve into their roles, from Elordi’s resemblance to Elvis to Caeny being transformed from a 14-year-old to an adult, is the incredibly make-up team. They thankfully don’t go for exaggerated or dazzling displays, instead they have the hairdos and make-up hues inform the characters to transmit the age difference, era, and emotional queues.
In the end, Coppola delivers an immersive and hypnotizing take on Priscilla and her relationship with Elvis. Priscilla works not only as a great biopic for the eponymous woman, but for Elvis as well, showing his more insecure and human side in a grounding way. Coppola gets a bit too wrapped up in the first half of Priscilla’s life, watering down her later years of self-discovery and diminishing the final third. Nevertheless, the pinpoint perfect casting, stellar performances, and transformative make-up, do enough to bring viewers into the private recesses and struggles of this silent historical figure, finally given her time in the spotlight.