Priscilla (2023)

Somewhere in Priscilla is a film that gives the necessary agency needed than what is presented to the point of view of the person telling this story. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola and based on Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley, the story itself takes the run of the mill biopic and flips it to the other side of the coin to let another voice be heard and give an accounting of what happened between the king of rock and roll and his wife during the brief time that they were together.

Beginning in 1959 on a military base in Germany, Coppola’s story opens on a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) getting invited to attend a party at 24-year-old Elvis Presley’s (Jacob Elordi) home just off base. Protesting her involvement and attendance to a decades older man’s home, Priscilla’s parents (Ari Cohen & Dagmara Domińczyk) are sweet talked by Elvis with the best of intentions – Priscilla will be safe in his care. After a couple casual encounters, Elvis and Priscilla strike up a romance that quickly takes over Priscilla’s everyday life as a freshman in high school. When Elvis’s time in the army comes to an end, Priscilla is promised to not be forgotten by him when he returns home to Memphis and his life.

From the moment Coppola introduces the two eventual husband and wife to one another, there’s an instant allure to Spaeny and Elordi’s chemistry. It’s sweet, sincere and delicate and you’re made to believe Elvis has Priscilla’s best interests at heart. She is 10 years his junior and a minor – what could he possibly see in her that he can’t get from a woman his own age, Priscilla’s stepfather argues. And in a modern world, anyone with half a brain would object to the pairing (some more argumentative than Captain Beaulieu).

Then again, it’s not every day that you capture the attention of the most famous person on the planet. There is no chance a 14-year-old girl can keep the attention of Elvis Presley. Priscilla sees past the fame and fortune and clout chasing being with Elvis brings but it’s all a façade.

Fast forward to 1963 to Elvis seeking for Priscilla to come to Memphis to live with him at Graceland and finish her senior year of high school. Reluctantly her parents once again agree to have their underage daughter now live with a man way older than her, and Priscilla finally gets to indulge in a life that many of us dream about having. But when reality sets in, the fame and fortune of being with the most famous person on earth comes second to the real feelings that Priscilla encounters during the days Elvis is away on movie sets and in recording studios.

To go back to my point at the top, Coppola puts you right in the shoes of Priscilla Presley highlighting the isolation and the loneliness that comes when dating a celebrity or someone with a lot on their plate, being pulled in many different directions. Moments of silence speak volume’s juxtaposed to the lavish parties in Vegas with drug and alcohol use. But there isn’t enough of that agency, that conviction Priscilla feels to go from one dimension to a multi layered emotional experience. Whenever the two have a quarrel or the intensity between them boils over, all it takes is a brief apology and a kiss on the cheek and everything is ok. It’s like nothing happened. Elvis throwing a chair at the wall or rumors of adultery being true is just boys being boys. 

Early on Priscilla falls in love with the idea of being with Elvis and his charm and chivalry make it easy to fall for and then Coppola reminds you of the gap in age and the gap in lifestyles. For Priscilla happiness is just an illusion she’s desperate to hold on to. Extra-marital rumors and a party lifestyle begin to take their toll.

Spaeny as Priscilla gives an award worth performance. She has the impression of innocence and naivety but isn’t afarid to stand up for herself when Elvis loses control. Opposite her is Elordi’s version of Elvis, 1 year removed from the complete transformation by Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic. Elordi doesn’t quite get lost in the role – there are plenty of times when all you see is Elordi not Elvis, but his displacement can be forgiven because all eyes are focused on Spaeny. She can hypnotize anyone with a single look.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd shoots Priscilla like a memoir – grainy but crisp with a vintage aesthetic. Think of home movies shot on a cheap video camera during every single family gathering. Le Sourd gets a stylish shot through its simplicity. There are no tricks, Priscilla is always the center of attention and it’s her reactions that paint the picture of an abusive and controlling relationship. Whatever Elvis wants, he gets – he wants Priscilla to dye her hair black, stay on the opposite side of the country while he does whatever he wants while she remains in isolation with her mental state deteriorating, he gets.

Coppola tells this brief time in Priscilla’s life as Elvis treats her – an accessory, a house pet to be fully controlled at his request. It’s heartbreaking what Priscilla endures from a very young and impressionable age and Coppola does so in a sensitive and sympathetic manner. In stark contrast Coppola misses the mark on the constant conflict between the two – every argument features the action, reaction and a brief apology before the two make up and move on like it didn’t happen. Playing out like a group of pictures on a disposable camera instead of a full narrative, Priscilla doesn’t match the levels of emotional turmoil the characters are experiencing – once the next scene starts the tone stays the same.

Screenplay By: Sofia Coppola

Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Music By: Phoenix & Sons of Raphael

Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd

Starring: Cailee Spaeny & Jacob Elordi

Edited By: Sarah Flack

Release Date: October 27, 2023

Running Time: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%

Based On: Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley & Sandra Harmon

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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