Sofia Coppola takes on the myth of Elvis in harrowing Priscilla
The life and myth of Elvis Presley was such that he remains a fascination 46 years after his death. It was just last year that we got the big-budget fantasia Elvis from Baz Luhrmann, and while the new film Priscilla from writer/director Sofia Coppola isn’t an official response to that film, it certainly takes a much different approach to understanding the man.
That’s because it’s first and foremost concerned with Priscilla Presley, née Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), who, when the film starts, is a 14-year-old 9th grader living in West Germany in 1959. Stationed at the same American base as Priscilla’s stepfather is none other than the 24-year-old Elvis (Jacob Elordi), in the middle of his two years in the Army.
Coppola tracks their relationship from beginning to end, with an emphasis on their personal interactions. Save for allusions to Elvis going off to film movies and a couple of brief concert scenes, there is little of Elvis the performer in the film. Instead, Coppola is more interested in what drew the two together, how Elvis influenced Priscilla, and how they behaved toward each other in private moments.
And, spoiler alert if you’re not well-versed in Elvis history, it wasn’t exactly the picture of harmony. In fact, if there’s one thing that it seems Coppola wanted to accomplish with the film, it’s destroying the idea once-and-for-all that that Elvis and Priscilla had any type of grand romance. That starts with the emphasis (and re-emphasis) on their age difference, the creepiness of which can’t be denied or brushed aside by saying “it was a different time.”
That feeling remains for the entire film as Elvis, despite acting innocent and chaste early in his relationship with Priscilla, comes off as a groomer in many respects. He controls not only when they’re intimate, but also what Priscilla wears, when she can leave Graceland, and starts her on an addiction to pills to both help her sleep and stay awake.
Priscilla’s life “with” Elvis is rarely a one-on-one affair, as he’s constantly surrounded by his doting grandmother (Lynne Griffin), his overbearing father, Vernon (Tim Post), and a group of sycophantic friends. Coppola does a great job at showing what an isolated life Priscilla led, especially during her early days at Graceland, having to simply wait for Elvis to grace her with his presence while also worrying about tabloid reports of on-set romances with different actresses.
While there’s nothing flashy about Spaeny’s performance, she successfully manages the tricky journey from wide-eyed innocent to embittered soon-to-be divorcee. Elordi has a tall order comparing to last year’s Oscar-nominated performance by Austin Butler, but he puts in more-than-credible work, and the height difference between him and Spaeny (he’s 6’ 5”, she’s 5’ 1) aids the storytelling device Coppola uses.
The person-behind-the person rarely gets to have their story told, and while Priscilla naturally depends on Elvis for its context, it gives Priscilla agency, showing the grind that comes with being the girlfriend/wife of the most famous person in the world. It’s a harrowing watch in many ways, one that fits right in with Coppola’s impressive filmography.
Priscilla opens in theaters on November 3.