“Priscilla review: Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Priscilla and Elvis shakes up the American fairy tale”

From impersonators in Vegas to Oscar-nominated portrayals, Elvis Presley has undeniably left his mark on pop culture. However, after years spent in his shadow, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley finally receives the Hollywood treatment herself.

Sofia Coppola adapts Priscilla’s memoir “Elvis and Me” into a film, both writing and directing it. She brings her trademark focus on the isolation and loneliness of girlhood to the complex romance between Priscilla and Elvis. The movie introduces us to Priscilla at the age of 14, depicted with a spunky ponytail as she does her homework at a soda fountain. Living on a military base with her family in Germany, she receives an invitation to a party at Presley’s residence, setting the stage for the relationship that would shape her life.

Coppola charts the insidious ways in which Presley grooms and isolates the teenage Priscilla until she has no agency over her own life. At first, he’s the perfect gentleman, delivering her home by curfew nightly, restricting intimacy to hugs and chaste kisses, and striving to win over her parents. But once Elvis gets Priscilla to Graceland, he begins to dictate everything from the clothes she wears to the color of her hair. Priscilla’s love for Elvis is undeniable, but as he becomes more emotionally distant and she matures into womanhood, she starts to realize the constraints of the life he has constructed for her.

Priscilla may not be flawless, but its significance lies in its very existence, offering a nuanced portrayal of its protagonist that surpasses previous depictions. Unlike in last year’s Elvis, where Priscilla was depicted as a one-dimensional figure, here she is portrayed as a fully fleshed-out individual—a portrayal further enhanced by Priscilla Presley’s involvement as a producer.

Collaborating with production designer Tamara Deverell, Coppola meticulously constructs a vivid, pink-hued confinement for Priscilla right from the film’s onset. The opening shots zoom in on a plush, flamingo-colored carpet, accentuating Priscilla’s matching toenails, while her signature winged eyeliner serves as a striking visual motif reminiscent of the Taylor Swift lyric, “Cat eye sharp enough to kill a man.” This imagery aptly parallels both women’s astute business sense and their knack for challenging and deconstructing societal expectations surrounding femininity.

Indeed, that’s precisely Coppola’s aim in this film. Drawing on her previous works such as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, Coppola skillfully captures girlhood poised on the razor’s edge of Venus. In her cinematic universe, girls are depicted as untamed, whimsical beings, ensnared by the porcelain allure of their beauty and societal pressures that clash with their innermost desires and fantasies. Priscilla, as portrayed in this film, epitomizes this struggle—a young girl grappling to navigate the complexities of adulthood and womanhood.

Following Priscilla’s journey with Elvis from their initial encounter when she was merely 14 to their eventual separation when she turned 28 covers a significant span of time for a single actor to portray. However, Cailee Spaeny delivers a preternatural performance, seamlessly transitioning from a naive teenager to a confident and self-assured woman. Spaeny adeptly embodies Priscilla’s evolution from a picture of adolescent innocence to Elvis’s protege, ultimately reaching a point of personal growth and authenticity. Her portrayal of this gradual transformation—exemplified through Priscilla’s evolving hairstyles, fashion choices, and makeup—exudes a graceful subtlety that resonates throughout the film.

Jacob Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis in “Priscilla” offers a stark departure from the typical Hollywood depiction of the “king.” Unlike previous portrayals, Elordi’s Elvis eschews the iconic image often associated with him. Director Sofia Coppola ensures that Elordi’s performance avoids reducing Elvis to a mere icon. While he possesses the signature Memphis drawl and dark hair, Elordi’s Elvis is portrayed as more petulant and immature than the teenage Priscilla he is dating. Unlike Austin Butler’s portrayal in “Elvis,” which earned an Oscar nomination, Elordi’s performance offers a unique perspective on the legendary figure, making comparisons between the two futile given their disparate characterizations.

Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis captures a sense of soulfulness, revealing why Priscilla would be captivated by an older, famous man who lavished attention on her and claimed she was the only one who understood him. This interpretation of Elvis emphasizes his loneliness and the aura of a lost boy, which initially attracted him to Priscilla. In tender moments, he embodies the vulnerability of a child who has experienced loss, surrounded by rowdy companions. Elordi’s imposing stature, towering at 6’5″ (overshadowing Elvis’ reported six-foot height), allows him to seamlessly switch between personas, transitioning from a lost little boy to a figure of intimidating masculinity, reflecting the harsh standards of 1950s manhood.

At its core, Priscilla delves into the theme of loneliness — a unique and profound type that stems from being more of an image than an individual. Initially, Priscilla and Elvis bond over their shared homesickness while stationed overseas in Germany. However, this same feeling of abandonment ultimately drives a wedge between them. After relocating to Memphis, Priscilla finds herself unable to form connections with her peers due to her association with Elvis. Additionally, her focus on schoolwork further alienates her from the adults in her life. As time passes, Elvis gradually strips away any semblance of Priscilla’s independence — dictating her appearance, grooming habits, and even introducing her to his pharmaceutical regimen of uppers and downers. He constructs a gilded cage around her, built from hairspray, eyeliner, and addictive substances.

Spaeny poignantly portrays Priscilla’s transformation into Elvis’s puppet, donning lacy, satin nightgowns and posing for boudoir photos that symbolize a manufactured notion of sexuality rather than genuine intimacy. These moments, rather than fostering a connection, highlight Priscilla’s role as a facade of love and marriage that Elvis presents to the world. Spaeny’s performance is particularly heartbreaking in a scene where Priscilla calmly applies her eyeliner while in labor, underscoring the chilling extent of her submission to Elvis’s control.

While Priscilla successfully navigates its initial acts and portrays the seeds of rebellion that will eventually empower Priscilla to emancipate herself, it falters in its third act. The film skirts over well-known extramarital affairs Priscilla had, which may not be crucial but still leaves a narrative gap. More importantly, it fails to provide a clear depiction of how or why Priscilla finds her independence. When she tells Elvis she’s “losing me to a life of my own,” the film doesn’t effectively illustrate this transformation, aside from brief glimpses of karate lessons and social gatherings.

Today, Priscilla is a formidable figure—after her divorce from Elvis, she launched her own clothing boutique and played a pivotal role in preserving his legacy as the founder and president of Elvis Presley Enterprises. While her journey to this empowered state undoubtedly unfolded gradually, the film disappointingly glosses over her path to agency within her own narrative.

Coppola aims to illustrate how Priscilla became not just a partner but also a creative project for Elvis, akin to one of his songs or films. Elvis, likely under the influence of Colonel Parker (who remains an offscreen presence in the film), molds Priscilla to embody a specific image of domesticity and femininity. However, the film falls short in exploring what makes Priscilla truly intriguing: her ability to navigate her relationship with Elvis while also asserting her independence and individuality.

The closing scene of the film, beautifully paired with Dolly Parton’s original rendition of “I Will Always Love You” — a song Elvis sang to Priscilla on the day of their divorce — encapsulates the enduring bond between Elvis and Priscilla and the intricacies of their relationship. Indeed, in many ways, their love never truly faded. However, it’s evident that Priscilla also embarked on a journey to love herself, a crucial aspect missing from Coppola’s depiction in the film’s third act.

“Priscilla” adeptly portrays the dynamics of its central relationship, highlighting Elvis’ manipulation and control over Priscilla. However, it falls short in depicting Priscilla’s journey to self-determination and empowerment. Despite enduring love, Priscilla ultimately severs toxic ties with Elvis, a heroic act that deserves more emphasis. Coppola’s film would benefit from delving deeper into Priscilla’s path to self-discovery and empowerment, showcasing how she subverted Elvis’ influence for her own ends.

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