‘Priscilla’ – a twisted fairy tale about her relationship with Elvis

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An adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me”, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) depicts a glamorous and infatuating, but often troubled, and controlling relationship that would last fourteen years. The film manoeuvres us through their romance, in this dark, yet candid depiction of the couple’s early meeting, marriage and eventually divorce, as we watch Priscilla leave her life as American royalty behind to become her own woman. 

The biopic begins in 1959 meeting a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), in West Germany with her family living on a US military base. It is here where the long, enrapturing courtship between a briefly stationed Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) begins, one that would ultimately result in the young Priscilla losing herself in the flush of girlhood passion, and the pursuit of puppy love. 

It is only once Priscilla moves to the gilded gates of Graceland, much like Marie Antoinette (2006), that she finds herself inside a gilded cage. Still a schoolgirl, she is left alone in the quiet and empty home, bored and restless with the ennui of watching Elvis from afar once again, wary of his affairs with starlets as he attempts to become a Hollywood icon. With each return, the monotony and silence of Priscilla’s everyday routine is transformed; we see shots of the teenage girl matching handguns with her different dresses, partying and gambling all night, only then be listening to nuns in a classroom the next morning. The mumbling, sensitive Elvis, grieving his mother when they first met, transforms as his fame snowballs, with sudden violent fits of rage directed at Priscilla. Jacob Elordi creates a refreshing and humanising portrayal of both the rock pioneer’s sensitivity and charisma, and his petulant, childlike nature, whilst allowing his co-star to claim the film’s spotlight. 

Abstract and intimate electronic performances from the likes of Porches, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Dan Deacon

The audience goes on to see Priscilla delegated the role of the dutiful and unquestioning partner, entrapped in the luxurious, plush prison of Graceland. She understands that any diversion from the desires of her husband would result in an abrupt ending to the lifestyle she had for a time truly desired. It is only once Elvis leaves for an extended tour, and she is free to abandon the towering hair and flamboyant fashion. Spending time finally making friends and having a life of her own with their daughter, Priscilla finds the strength to leave the coercive relationship. 

Being familiar in using dreamy, hazy, anachronistic compositions in films such as Marie Antoinette (2006) and Lost in Translation (2003), director Sofia Coppola’s approach to this film is no different, with abstract and intimate electronic performances from the likes of Porches, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Dan Deacon. Unable to gain the rights to Elvis’ music, the silver lining to this absence is the shift in power this creates, allowing Coppola to use female artists from this period. We see the best example of this as Priscilla drives away from Graceland for the last time, with Dolly Parton’s passionate ballad “I will always love you” playing, a song Parton initially wrote for Elvis. But after he requested full ownership of publishing, she recorded the hit herself, drawing a comparison between the two women who both sought ownership of their lives. 

Coppola once again depicts the nuanced experience of teenage girlhood, one that is fragile and authentic

With 2023 being the year of the feminist fable, unlike Barbie, there are no impassioned monologues about female independence or misogyny in this film. In fact, Priscilla has little dialogue, a seemingly meek character. Coppola once again depicts the nuanced experience of teenage girlhood, one that is fragile and authentic, and not filled with making the most ‘typically-feminist’ choices, but instead based on emotional desires. Cailee Spaeny’s graceful performance compensates for Priscilla’s silence; her wistful facial expressions and body language capture the story of a young girl masquerading as a woman. It is no surprise Spaeny received the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her tactful portrayal of a lost innocence. 

Priscilla stands as Coppola’s best film of the last decade, a delicate and empathetic depiction of a teenage girl thrust into the spotlight, an ideal subject to add to her filmography of ingenues in locked prisons of suppressed womanhood. As in her previous films, marriage is portrayed by Coppola as an experience a young woman must go through, before finally reaching true personhood. 

Image: Tullio Saba via Flickr

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