Sofia Coppola’s films are suffused with the bittersweet inevitability of adolescence: a period of life that changes you irrevocably and comes with an in-built ending. Anyone who has studied History at high school knows the outcome of Marie Antoinette (2006). In The Virgin Suicides (1999), it’s right there in the title. This sense of languid doom has never been more apparent than in Coppola’s new biopic Priscilla (based on its subject’s own memoir, Elvis and Me [1985, with Sandra Harmon]). We already know how this story ends – so the writer-director invites us to take the scenic route, emphasising texture and psychology over drama and causality.
Priscilla Beaulieu and Elvis Presley’s relationship will not last – this we know even before we see them meet at a party in West Germany in 1959. Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) is fourteen years old, accustomed to going wherever her father’s Air Force service takes her. Elvis (Jacob Elordi) is twenty-four, and already a global sensation. As his military service ends and he departs for the United States, leaving Priscilla to pine in his absence, he all but orders her: ‘Promise me you’ll stay the way you are now.’ He is not speaking figuratively.
Two years pass before Priscilla is summoned to Graceland, the Memphis estate which functioned both as Elvis’s family home and his base of operations. She has gone from reading about him in the gossip columns, just like any other fan, to inhabiting his inner sanctum – but the conditions of her residency become clear early on. She is to have no part in Elvis’s business affairs. She is not to join him on tour. She is to dress the way he wishes, dye her hair the colour he requests, take the pills he gives her, and essentially blend into the background hum of boorish yes-men he is surrounded by at all times. When Elvis goes on tour, or heads to Hollywood to shoot another film, Priscilla is left at Graceland – a gilded cage if ever there was one – where all she can do is read about her beau (and his entanglements with the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Ann-Margret) in the gossip columns.
Coppola is an outright master at illustrating the dissonance between a woman’s inner life and her external surroundings. Whether it’s a troupe of disturbed young girls in pastel-coloured suburban Detroit (The Virgin Suicides), the loneliest woman in the world marooned in the busiest city on the planet (Lost in Translation, 2003), or a listless young queen killing time in the Palace of Versailles (Marie Antoinette), the grandiose settings that Coppola’s characters inhabit are negative spaces, conspicuously designed to emphasise what these women ultimately lack. Graceland makes for a fine new entry in this canon – a gleaming trophy cabinet for an exemplary trophy wife.
Priscilla is as painstakingly researched and rendered as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022) – the regal bedrooms, the gleaming sports cars, the impeccable outfits (courtesy of Tamara Deverell’s production design and Stacey Battat’s costuming) – but Coppola’s camera refuses to fetishise these things the way Luhrmann’s did. Fame, beauty, and wealth are well and good, but they’re not enough to fully pacify Coppola’s young protagonists, or prevent them from having their own thoughts, desires, and dreams.
One of the film’s starkest refusals of the Elvis mythos comes from cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who depicts Graceland as perpetually devoid of any interior light. Priscilla and Elvis’s bedroom is a dim, near-medieval chamber of black leather, dark wood, and lace curtains, while the wider mansion is littered with opulent chandeliers, lamps, and light fittings that never appear to be switched on. Almost every scene in Graceland is lit solely via windows, a conceptual gimmick that gets sadder and more profound the longer you dwell on it. Imagine giving up your childhood, your family, and your future, to travel to a place you hoped would feel like the centre of the universe – a place where you thought all the light in the world came from – only to realise that the only light there is coming from outside. Wherever the young Priscilla goes, it feels like the real party’s somewhere else. If that’s not a frighteningly accurate representation of adolescence, I don’t know what is.
It would be easy for Coppola to paint this version of Elvis as a post-#MeToo monster, a two-dimensional villain and abuser – and while Elordi’s portrayal is by far the most unflattering portrait of the King you are likely to see in mainstream media, his performance is remarkably rich and restrained. There is only about thirty seconds of Elvis actually performing in Priscilla. Mostly we see him behind the scenes: goofing around with his idiot mates, throwing fits when he hears opinions he doesn’t like, turning on a dime from doting to demonic. It becomes clear that, despite his years, he is still little more than a child himself, handed too much power too early in life. Elordi’s performance is the kind that negates the need for histrionic prosthetics. He may only bear a passing resemblance to the man himself, but the energy he brings to the role is spot-on. Meanwhile, Spaeny has an even tougher assignment: how do you bring definition to a character who was plucked from obscurity specifically because of her malleability? By the time she finds herself in a destructive marriage, attempting to play both doting wife and mother, Priscilla is still figuring out simply how to be herself. Spaeny is exceptional at simultaneously conveying these conflicting duties and impulses without ever tipping over into melodrama.
Coppola has always been wonderfully frank in her depiction of young women tackling the world with whatever (often insufficient) tools they have been given, and in Priscilla she offers one of the finest and most succinct moments of character work I have seen: Priscilla Presley donning fake eyelashes as she prepares to go to hospital to give birth to her daughter. (They should teach this sequence in film schools: concise, wordless, basically perfect). This is an absurd gesture in one sense, but it’s also clearly the only way this woman knows how to carry on under her highly unique circumstances. The dialogue in Priscilla is fairly perfunctory; it’s visual moments like the eyelashes that speak most clearly, and the longer you look at Coppola’s compositions, the more you’re bound to see. This is true from the very first frame of Priscilla: a close-up of a young woman’s feet with painted toenails, pacing along and sinking down into thick, plush carpet: something pleasing to the eye, something soft to the touch, but nevertheless, something you might sink in.
Priscilla (A24/Madman Entertainment), 113 minutes, in cinemas from 18 January 2024.