A fresh-faced teen with her stylish bobby soxer outfits and hairdos is bored out of her skull in an American army outpost in Germany in 1959. She is wide-eyed and open to the world, but the world is made up of adults and fuddy-duddies—the two are almost synonymous—and the girl has little recourse for her energy and burgeoning romantic daydreams. And then, hark! Who goes there? It’s Elvis F-cking Presley, at the height of his fame, sweeping the girl off her feet and into his magical Graceland, a world of glamour and excitement and life to be lived, not merely observed. But suddenly the girl is an adult, waking up to the reality of her world when it’s too late, and the gilded cage is closed.
Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla continues her cinematic exploration of girlhood, this time through the eyes of one of the 20th century’s most famous brides: Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, wife of Elvis. Adapted by Coppola from the 1985 book Elvis and Me, written by Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon, Priscilla follows the romance of Priscilla Beaulieu and Elvis Presley through Priscilla’s eyes from a 14-year-old girl to a 27-year-old woman. Cailee Spaeny portrays Priscilla at every age, effectively capturing her teenage girlhood and her wearier womanhood. It’s an extraordinary performance that deepens the sensitivity of Coppola’s script, enhancing the loneliness and isolation of Priscilla’s experience.
The Coppola film Priscilla most resembles is Marie Antoinette, which also centers on a teenager growing up in the spotlight only to find her privileged life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Priscilla is the daughter of an Army officer, bored out of her mind at their station in Germany, when she meets Elvis Presley at a house party. Portrayed here by the tall, dark, and handsome Jacob Elordi, Elvis is literally a larger-than-life figure, the six-five actor deliberately positioned in frame to loom over Priscilla—Spaeny is only five-one—their height difference a key cog in depicting how Elvis controls and manipulates Priscilla from the moment they meet.
Priscilla’s parents are concerned about the ten-year age difference between their daughter and Elvis, and they’re wary of Elvis’s fame, but after a six-month whirlwind romance in Germany, Elvis’s Army stint is over, and he retreats to Graceland. The sigh of relief that comes as his suffocating presence is removed from the impressionable Priscilla’s sphere is short-lived; soon enough, Elvis is beckoning Priscilla across the pond, whisking her off to Graceland and Vegas and his high-flying lifestyle, overcoming her parents’, if not the audience’s, reservations and playing into Priscilla’s childish yearning for adventure and romance and excitement.
There is no escaping the discomfort of the age gap in Priscilla. It is highlighted constantly, most effectively through Spaeny’s capable, flexible performance, her wide-eyed wonder slowly collapsing into acute loneliness and boredom when it’s too late and she is locked in Elvis’s cage. She is a literal child shut away in the dollhouse of Graceland, dressed and made over by Elvis like his very own paper doll, before she has any sense of self or independence. Coppola effectively captures Priscilla’s youthful desire for romance while sharing none of it with the audience, every step Priscilla takes toward Elvis is laden with dread, with an outsider’s knowledge of how their “fairytale” ended (disappointment and divorce). And, too, there is the ever-present acknowledgment that Elvis is a grown man fully preying on a young girl, too young to see the red flags flying every which way.
Elordi’s performance as Elvis is somewhat vacuous, the look of it good enough but the emotionality a little lacking, especially up against Spaeny’s forceful work as Priscilla. He is most effective as that looming figure often overflowing the frame, embodying the suffocating life Priscilla lives as Elvis’s “unofficial fiancé” and later wife. It is certainly an unflattering depiction of Elvis, less interested in his iconography than his infidelity, and while that might turn off some Elvis fans, it is a fitting portrayal of the domineering presence that shaped critical years of Priscilla’s life.
Coppola’s work is often more about mood and style than narrative consistency, and though Priscilla offers a clear throughline for Priscilla’s growth from plaything to woman, it is still very much a film made of vibes. Without access to Elvis’s library—not shocking his estate wouldn’t go along with this portrayal of “the King”, despite the real Priscilla’s blessing—Coppola, working with music supervisor Randall Poster and the band Phoenix, puts together one of her signature anachronistic soundtracks. The look and feel of Priscilla are wonderful, with an appropriate vintage sheen contrasting with the thoroughly contemporary perspective.
As is true with all of Sofia Coppola’s work, Priscilla won’t be for everyone. It’s a scathing indictment of Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship, while being a generous portrait of Priscilla herself—who definitely comes off better in the infidelity stakes—propelled by Cailee Spaeny’s terrific performance. But Priscilla is Coppola’s most consistent, cohesive effort since Marie Antoinette, and like that film, it is a sharp articulation of Coppola’s interests in girlhood, growing up, and the ways in which the world seeks to use young women. Romance is a tool to be wielded against naïve girls by predatory men who don’t want partners but want play-pretend wives to be taken out only when convenient and shown off only when it benefits him. In Sofia Coppola’s Cinema of Girlhood, Priscilla is a horror movie.
This review was published during the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of actors. Priscilla is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Attached - Cailee Spaeny at the 26th SCAD Savannah Film Festival at the end of last month, and Sofia Coppola at The View in New York last week.