Sofia Coppola turns her keen eye to modern mythology, adapting Priscilla Presley's memoir into a gorgeous, acutely sad coming-of-age drama.
In a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, Jennifer Garner was asked about her marriage to Ben Affleck, which ended the previous year. “He’s just a complicated guy,” Garner said. “I always say, ‘When his sun shines on you, you feel it. But when the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold. He can cast quite a shadow’.” This line could be equally applied to the relationship between Priscilla and Elvis Presley, as depicted in Sofia Coppola’s biographical drama.
A filmmaker who has always shown an acute interest in the interiority of teenage girls, and the reality of otherwise picture-perfect romance, Coppola seems uniquely suited to tackle the story of the woman behind the man – in fact, Priscilla serves as the executive producer on the project, which is adapted from her 1985 memoir ‘Elvis and Me’. If Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 musical extravaganza was a dazzling look at an American icon, Priscilla is perhaps its foil: a melancholy fairy tale about first love and enduring mythology.
As a lonely American teenager living on a US airbase in Wiesbaden, Germany, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) receives an invitation to a party at Elvis Presley’s Friedberg home – a tantalising proposition. Her parents are initially reluctant to allow their 14-year-old daughter to hang out with a group of adults – Elvis was 24 at the time – but after assurances it’s all above board (and perhaps sensing Priscilla’s desire for some connection to home) they let her go. It’s there that Priscilla meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi) for the first time. He’s a tall, charismatic presence, who initially mistakes Priscilla for a high school senior. When she tells him her age, he lets out a low whistle. “You’re just a baby,” He murmurs.
But this doesn’t stop Presley from pursuing Priscilla, and the teenager from falling head over heels for him in the way most young women are for their favourite singer. It’s a fairytale in Priscilla’s eyes; a sweet, handsome man has come to rescue her from her isolation and take her back to America. She begs and pleads with her parents to let her follow where Elvis goes. “Please don’t ruin my life,” Priscilla tells them, echoing a conversation every teenage girl has had with their parents at some point.
Coppola never tries to justify the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla – we see Priscilla’s parents agonising over the decision to allow her to leave for Memphis, or forbid it and risk losing her all the same – but she does underscore the significant age gap between the two. While he’s mulling over career decisions, she’s doing homework. Soon enough Elvis is advising Priscilla how to dress and telling her she should dye her hair and wear more eye makeup. He moulds her in his image, creating the perfect rock star’s girlfriend, and Priscilla – alone in his world – has little option but to cooperate.
The parallels between Priscilla and Marie Antoinette are myriad; in one scene Priscilla excuses herself from a party to cry in private after seeing Elvis flirting with another woman, having previously shown little interest in physical intimacy with her. Her own desires are subservient to his, and Elvis leaves no room for negotiation. She becomes a sort of outlet for him to offload his emotional baggage, confessing his hopes and dreams but never asking what Priscilla’s are. When she enquires about maybe going to work in a boutique part-time to give her something to do with her day, he quickly forbids it, stating she has to be around the house in case he needs her. When Elvis buys Priscilla a puppy after she moves into Graceland, how is she supposed to know she’s expected to walk to heel too?
In another echo of Marie Antoinette – but also The Virgin Suicides – Priscilla’s loneliness tempers the glamour of the world she’s thrown into. In the early years of their courtship, while Elvis is off shooting movies, hanging out with his buddies or performing, Priscilla is expected to stay at home. At Graceland she has no real place, admonished for distracting the staff or sitting out in the front garden where someone might see her.
Philippe LeSourd – who has served as Coppola’s regular cinematographer since The Beguiled in 2017 – shoots Graceland as a guided cage, sun-dappled but silent whenever Elvis is away. Priscilla wanders its halls, like a beautiful doll in a lavishly outfitted doll house that’s too big for her. Graceland only comes to life when Elvis comes around.
Stacy Batatt’s divine costume work operates in a similar manner, indicating the difference between Priscilla’s self-image and the one Elvis has of her. She dresses for herself when he’s not around and appears more youthful and comfortable as a result. Similarly, production designer Tamara Deverell and her team lovingly recreate not only Graceland but all the ephemera of Priscilla’s life, from Aqua Net hairspray to teen magazines. There’s dedication to bringing the audience right into the world which she inhabited, glamorous, overwhelming, and lonely as it was.
As well as this, we do see what it was that Priscilla loved about him, even if the film is relatively chaste (a late scene seems to pull its punches about a marital sexual assault which was detailed in Priscilla’s memoir). Elvis is generous and attentive, funny and charismatic, so long as he’s never questioned. The only person he defers to is his controlling manager Tom ‘The Colonel’ Parker, who is only ever referred to or indicated as a voice down a phone line, adding a phantom element that contrasts with Tom Hanks’ bombastic performance last year. Repeatedly Priscilla must read about Elvis’s romances with co-stars in the tabloids; only once does he admit to there being any truth in the matter (Ann-Margaret, whom he met on the set of Viva Las Vegas). Only as she grows up does Priscilla realise she needs more than he’s willing (or perhaps able) to give.
Relative newcomer Cailee Spaeny – recommended to the filmmaker by Kirsten Dunst – is a great choice for Priscilla, possessing a grace and interiority that defines Coppola’s characters. As a storyteller, she has never dealt in dramatic monologues or grand gestures and Spaeny seems to innately understand this, capturing both the dizzy headstrong optimism of Priscilla’s teenage years and the heartbreak and doubt that set in in the years following the birth of their daughter Lisa-Marie.
Jacob Elordi faces an uphill task to portray Elvis given it’s so soon after Austin Butler’s Oscar-nominated performance, but the result was always going to be markedly different teamed with Sofia Coppola’s more nuanced direction, and he’s compelling as a grown man coddled at every turn, who retains a juvenile attitude to his own wants and needs versus those of others. His Elvis has more of an edge than Butler’s; in flashes he seems imposing, verging on dangerous. Then just as quickly he’s begging for forgiveness, blaming his anger on inheriting his Mama’s temper. Like a little boy called out for bad behaviour, nothing is ever really his fault.
There’s something comforting about fairytales because we know how they end. From childhood, we’re told that the prince saves the princess and they all live happily ever after. I’ve always thought biopics function in a slightly similar way – they’re often a story we’ve known all along, expressed in a different manner. It’s no secret that Priscilla and Elvis’s marriage didn’t last; they separated in 1972, after four years of marriage, 13 years after they first met. Coppola’s film depicts these events (arguably with quite an even hand to say the Presley estate has distanced itself from the film) but the real beauty of Priscilla is its delicate portrayal of the all-consuming fire and flood of first love, and what happens when you grow up, and begin to realise the fairytale doesn’t always have a happy ending. And that’s okay, too. Fairytales are fantasies, after all. The sun goes on shining when you step out of someone else’s shadow.
Published 4 Sep 2023
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