Priscilla Review: A Startlingly Vulnerable Study of Elvis’s Wife

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Priscilla, 2023
Priscilla, 2023Photography by Philippe Le Sourd

Premiered at Venice Film Festival, Sofia Coppola’s tender new Priscilla Presley biopic uncovers and recovers the complex interiority of a girl entirely absorbed by and refracted through male desire

There is a shot partway through Priscilla, after the eponymous teenager has moved into Elvis Presley’s house to finish her schooling, that recalls the infamous Converse shot of Marie Antoinette and its tangled language of juxtaposition. In it, Priscilla Beaulieu, soon-to-be Presley (a career-defining turn from Cailee Spaeny) unpacks her toiletries onto a table: a crystalline bottle of Chanel No 5, a lipstick, and a small tub of eczema cream sitting muted and serious in the background. Much like the scuffed shoes in the charismatic French queen’s film – in many ways the older counterpart to Priscilla’s gentle, artless little sister – the peeling unfussiness of the label builds a picture of prosaic childhood, now lost amidst years of history and lusted-after glamour.

All of which is to say that Priscilla is a Sofia Coppola film through and through, with all the tender attention to and soft, gutting literacy of female experience that this implies. It runs in trajectory to Priscilla’s life with Elvis, from their first encounter to eventual separation, bookending her life with the catalyst of his presence and, in doing so, uncovering and recovering the complex interiority of a girl entirely absorbed by and refracted through male desire. It would be reductive to say that Coppola approaches the story with an agenda; rather, in Priscilla the common themes of her filmmaking – the shattering fragility of girlhood and the violent ways in which it is made public property – find blistering resonance in this true tale of stolen childhood. “Do you like Elvis Presley?” a 14-year-old Priscilla is asked by the singer’s friend at the US Army base they are stationed at, moments before being hand-picked to attend his party. “Of course,” she laughs, bewildered. “Who doesn’t?”

The power differential between the couple is writ large from the off (it helps that Jacob Elordi’s Elvis is often positioned towering over Spaeny’s tiny frame): the intimacies of their courtship cover his music (her favourite song is Heartbreak Hotel), his family (he is grieving his mother), and his loneliness on this overseas assignment (“me too,” she manages softly). Yet from this imbalance, Coppola masterfully weaves a study not of innocence but of startlingly vulnerable inexperience. Innocent is how Elvis sees Priscilla, and what draws him to her – the potential eroticism of wide eyes and uncertain touch and breathless, unconsummated anticipation. Yet Priscilla is quietly bright, sexually curious, and entirely resolute – and horribly unprepared for the ways of the world. When she eventually gets her way and goes to live with Elvis at the age of 17, we – much like Priscilla – can hardly believe it is actually happening: the sun-bleached, contradictory artifice of Graceland, its apple-pie idyll of dodgem rides and skate outings cut with paparazzi and pills and an eerily chaste bed. Is she really there? Can it be true?

Yet amidst drugs dropped in childish manicured hands and a school uniform donned in a strange man’s home, Coppola reorients our gaze to the quiet intimacy of Priscilla’s private world, bolstered by her lead’s delicate, intuitive performance. Spaeny’s face is translucent, every emotional flicker visible beneath its surface; a receptor to both adoration and neglect and the eventual inability to differentiate between the two. Under Coppola’s observant, textural eye, this interior life finds material expression in totemic ephemera and yearning diary entries (their guileless, handwritten fervour recalling The Virgin Suicides’ Lux Lisbon, who wrote Trip Fontaine’s name on her underwear). The marginalia of girlhood – the moments resigned to the edges of collective memory – transform into a language that articulates beyond what historic narrative can or will.

Coppola has always understood female coming-of-age as a simultaneously private and public experience; her films are concerned with the irreconcilable tension between these two states, and the violence of finding your most vulnerable moments prey to observation and control. In Priscilla, much like in Marie Antoinette, Coppola finds an ideal subject and rewrites history, proffering a slant perspective – gauzy, fragile, and breathtakingly determined – on the girl in the backdrop, just within frame.

Priscilla will be released in UK cinemas on 26 December 2023.