Review | Priscilla | 2023
There were more than a few eyebrows raised in the Twittersphere when it was first announced that Sofia Coppola would be adapting Priscilla Presley's memoir, "Elvis and Me," which chronicles the story of the relationship between Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), which began when she was 14 years old and he was 24, for the big screen,
Whereas Baz Luhrmann's Elvis was an examination of Elvis the myth and cultural phenomenon, Priscilla is a demythologizing of Elvis the man. By focusing on Priscilla, the film is able to take a different approach than Lurhmann's energetic hagiography. Coppola doesn't portray him as a monster, however. And that's what makes the film so frequently unnerving. This is a young girl infatuated with an older man, a rock star no less, and Coppola intoxicatingly captures that hazy sense of starstruck love with dreamlike aplomb. But she is also keenly aware of Elvis' almost imperceptible manipulations, exerting control over Priscilla in the most mundane ways. It feels like totally normal behavior, and that's what makes it all so disturbing. You've seen men act like this. You likely know men who act like this. It feels very commonplace in a way that makes it feel all the more insidious. He shouts at her. He makes her feel guilty. He withholds affection. Strings her along. Gaslights her. Isolates her from friends and family. Threatens to leave her, then begs for her back. He takes things too far, then immediately pulls back with apologies and self loathing designed to make her feel sorry for him. It's textbook emotional abuse, and Priscilla nails it.
Coppola wisely doesn't feel the need to hammer the point home, and those for whom this behavior is normal may not recognize it at all. But Coppola constantly juxtaposes Elvis' height against the diminutive Priscilla. The camera follows Priscilla languidly wandering the halls of Graceland, dwarfed by the opulent expanses of her gilded cage. Even the couch seems too large for her, making her seem trapped in a constant state of childhood. And the glue that holds it all together is Cailee Spaeny's delicately calibrated performance, a thing of such beauty that one almost forgets they're watching a performance. There's one particular shot of Priscilla staring out the windows of Graceland, essentially a prisoner in her own home, and as Coppola's camera pulls away from her, so many emotions cross Spaeny's face through just the barest hints of movement.
She and Coppola have created something that feels major, a graceful yet forceful evocation of infatuation and romantic toxicity, of girlhood dreams quickly turning into painful realities. And yet, Coppola isn't afraid to explore the conflicts and occasional contradictions under the surface. Her Priscilla isn't a wilting victim, but someone who fulfills a dream only to find it both thrilling and wholly different than she imagined. The film wisely avoids using Elvis' music for the most part, opting for a mix of popular music from the period and Coppola's signature dreamy anachronisms, refusing to let his voice define hers. That is perhaps the film's greatest achievement, giving Priscilla a voice of her own apart from the all-encompassing presence of her legendary ex-husband; and reminding us all that he, like all legends like him, is just a man like any other.