Priscilla, the main character in Sofia Coppola’s latest film, is initially presented as isolated despite being surrounded by others. She is portrayed as a 14-year-old at an army base in West Germany, alone with her schoolwork and seemingly lacking social connections or devious intentions.
Coppola’s speed is fast; Cailee Spaeny delivers a captivating performance as Priscilla, who is quickly swept into a dreamy teenage fangirl scenario that may seem too good to be true and may prompt viewers to fact-check on Wikipedia. One of Elvis’ friends invites her to a party at his house; the 24-year-old heartthrob musician is intrigued by her, dressed in high school attire; he requests some time alone with her.
The movie has a wistful tone, showcasing lavish style and exquisite design while also being realistic about the origins of the relationship between two people with a significant age gap. Their initial courtship, innocent kisses, and desperate expressions of longing have a hint of horror to them. Elvis, portrayed by Jacob Elordi (who does a satisfactory job, but is not the focus of the film), is mainly attracted to Priscilla’s delicate and vulnerable aura. She appears young, with wide-eyed naivety and a strong sense of loneliness, almost like a figure to be molded. He affectionately calls her “Little one”.
Priscilla Presley, a former American schoolgirl who became a famous wife, is an ideal subject for director Coppola due to Elvis’s perception of her. As someone who has inherited a cinematic legacy, Coppola has created her own catalog of themes revolving around lonely girlhood – its imagery, isolation, and paradoxes of power. Similar to her other characters in films such as The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette, Priscilla is portrayed as an innocent young woman. She discovers the value of youth, beauty, and innocence through the gentleness of male attention, but keeps her inner thoughts hidden. As she gains power, she realizes its futility. Like Marie Antoinette, she is married to a king and surrounded by excessive opulence, yet still feels lonely and emotionally distant.
The film by Coppola initially appears to be focused on exploring the distance that exists for a woman who is often given a lesser role in her own story. It aims to uncover the true identity of the woman behind the titles “wife to the King” and “icon to the world”, as promised in the trailer. The young Priscilla has clear desires, such as wanting to see Elvis against her parents’ wishes, and also more ambiguous desires, like wanting to be physically close to someone. The film makes it clear that sex was a source of conflict between the couple, with Elvis withholding it despite her attempts, seemingly wanting to maintain her purity until the “right time”. As she is brought back to Graceland, a place filled with luxurious carpets and intimidating white furniture, she becomes increasingly frustrated and bored. We see her in moments of isolation, sitting on the couch with only her puppy for company or separated from fans by a gate, and we also get a sense of her feeling of unease. By day, she is a Catholic schoolgirl, but by night she becomes a seductress, subject to Elvis’s unpredictable moods fueled by substances.
The main focus of impressionistic biopics, pioneered by Pablo Larraín, is to convey the emotions experienced by a character at a specific moment in time. This subgenre deviates from traditional formulas in order to capture the essence of an iconic individual’s life, rather than just presenting factual information. These films aim to evoke certain sensations that cannot be achieved through pure recreation, such as Princess Diana’s intense feelings of loneliness and disorientation in Spencer, or Jackie Kennedy’s shock as she washes away her husband’s blood in the shower.
Priscilla is heavily involved in this project; rather than a traditional biopic, it is more of a memoir based on her 1985 book Elvis and Me, with her input. The film does not simply retell her life, but instead captures the essence of what it was like to be with Elvis. This is why Coppola does not include many details about Elvis’s life, such as his military service or his career and music. Additionally, Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s controlling manager portrayed by Tom Hanks in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, does not make an appearance. Coppola effectively portrays Priscilla’s perspective of Elvis as someone who is often isolated, unpredictable in his praise, and at times threatening, acting as both a caretaker and a dominant force.
Unfortunately, we are not able to gain a thorough understanding of Priscilla’s character. Once she arrives at Graceland, the focus of the film shifts to recreating iconic images and prioritizing aesthetics rather than delving into her personal growth as a woman. The delicate and intriguing exploration of her sexual experiences ultimately leads to nothing as the film jumps from Elvis taking photos of Priscilla in lingerie to their marriage, honeymoon, pregnancy, and hospital discharge with Lisa Marie. It is unclear what Priscilla’s thoughts and emotions were throughout these significant moments. Were there feelings of pain, fear, happiness, relief, or boredom? While the Polaroids of her posing for Elvis are visually appealing, they only hint at the dynamic between them.
Feelings, that elusive and undefinable concept, are certainly crucial in creating an impressionistic portrayal, but they do not define a person. Despite its vague and unclear nature, memories are still rooted in facts, events, and people. Undoubtedly, Priscilla had emotions surrounding her first encounter with Elvis, giving birth, adjusting to motherhood, experimenting with LSD, relocating to Los Angeles, forming genuine friendships (with whom? how? for what reason?), engaging in an affair (implied but not shown), and witnessing her husband’s visible decline (also only briefly shown, which is acceptable). However, instead of delving into these significant events, the audience is presented with a simplified cinematic representation of Priscilla’s triumph (spoilers ahead): she tearfully asserts her newfound (but perhaps undeserved on-screen) independence to her soon-to-be ex-husband before departing Graceland alone, accompanied by the music of Dolly Parton.
She undergoes growth, but remains a mystery; ultimately, Priscilla is a representation of her past self, with a transparent beauty and an unclear sense of identity. The true Priscilla was not shy or unassuming. It is unfortunate that in this captivating yet exasperating movie, she may come across as such.