Sofia Coppola Presents Priscilla Presley, Caught in a Trap
DIRECTED BY SOFIA COPPOLA/2023
JIM TUDOR: With maximalist flair and pulsating bombast, Baz Luhrmann presented a marked portrait of Elvis Presley, the poor engulfed superstar. In that film, Elvis’ unhappy and neglected wife Priscilla is seen almost in passing, her presence just enough to impact his own loss of self. Thanks to Luhrmann’s accomplished spectacle, contemporary audiences harbor some understanding of the complex plights of this icon of at last two bygone eras. But still, we can’t help but understand that there’s more to this story. What of Priscilla, Elvis’ too-young wife and the mother of their late daughter, Lisa Marie?
Sofia Coppola, being the daughter of bombastic megalo-director Francis Ford Coppola, knows a thing or two about existing in a privileged manner in the shadow of popular greatness. Her own illustrious filmmaking career is rife with “poor little rich girl” ennui. The beauty of it is that she is well aware of this, consistently probing the world of American wealth from different perspectives throughout her career as one of our foremost female auteurs.
TAYLOR BLAKE: With Priscilla, Coppola again proves herself again to be the patron saint of lonely women—hallelujah for her return! I was a fan of last year’s Elvis, but even when I included it in my top 10 of the year, I acknowledged its flaws. As you noted, Jim, Priscilla Presley was a blip in that film, and her characterization has little to nothing in common with this film based on her memoir that she produced. Perhaps it’s fitting that in Priscilla, her husband’s music is only a blip, with a few ivories tinkling “Love Me Tender” as the only noticeable allusion to his catalog.
In this telling of their relationship, their romance lives in an eternal autumn, never blooming but always dying in a brilliant display. Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) meet in 1959 in Germany during his military service. Priscilla lives out every fan girl’s fantasy when he notices her at a party and matches her swooning. If Nick Jonas had invited me up to his bedroom to talk when I was 14, I’m certain I’d have responded with the same timid eagerness she does, though there are two key differences between my daydream and Priscilla’s reality:
- My dad never would have let me attend that party
- Nick Jonas and I turned 14 the same year, but Elvis was 24 when he met Priscilla
In spite of her parents’ concerns, Priscilla advocates for their relationship even when he seems to have forgotten her. Once they reconnect, their affair lives in smoky rooms darkened by mid-century curtains, in tabloids, and in the palace known as Graceland until a divorce in 1973. How could a larger-than-life fairy tale lead to anything but a happy ending? Perhaps it was never a fairy tale to begin with.
In October, I binged Turner Classic Movies’ spotlight on Gothic literature adaptations, many of which featured a plot like this: a naive woman falls for and marries a wealthy man, moves into his mansion, and then discovers he has a terrible secret. While that summary glosses over the details of Dragonwyck, Experiment Perilous, Gaslight, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca, those films are more reasonable comparisons to Priscilla than Luhrmann’s 2022 film. Elordi’s Elvis is no Charles Boyer in Gaslight, but he does spend 14 years gaslighting a woman he says he loves. Instead of a villain, he’s an emotionally unintelligent addict who has lost touch with reality. He’s not too proud to say he’s sorry, but he’s not humble enough to hear the word “no” after years surrounded by an entourage. His Memphis Mafia tells him what he wants to hear, audiences listen to his suspect interpretations of scripture, and he is beholden by his childish inability to accept responsibility. He’s no mastermind manipulator, just an everyday manipulator who can only see on what’s immediately in front of him. Though his behavior made me throw up my hands in frustration several times, I didn’t leave hating him—I left pitying him.
JIM: Taylor, your thematic comparison to those classic Gothic literature adaptations is spot-on. (Isn’t it wonderful the way in which the unrelated films we watch in close proximity sometimes connect with one another? A big part of me lives for that.) Also apt is your observation that Elvis as we see him here (and by many accounts, in real life as well), was indeed no master manipulator. For him, Priscilla automatically represents a receptive purity that was no longer a part of his celebrity life, a virginal sounding board with an outward emotional intelligence. While the situation that leads to their relationship and eventual marriage is indeed every manner of sketch, Coppola and Elordi do a remarkable job of making the whole thing seem just so sweet. At first.
Really though, it’s the engrossing lead performance by Cailee Spaeny that sells it all. Spaeny not only carries this film, she leads us (via Coppola’s deliberately paced expert storytelling) through the very complex weave of euphoria, uncertainty, and ultimately, isolation, that Priscilla herself experiences. Look at the way her face subtly communicates the flooding myriad of feels as Elvis Presley himself begins to court her. Outwardly, she holds it all in. There’s never a squealy burst amongst a gaggle of her peers, or any release of the sort. In fact, per Priscilla, friends is not something she ever seemed to have a lot of. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal for Elvis, the entitled everyday manipulator.
The ballooning and unique tensions tend to be contained, even suppressed, in these characters’ lives. It’s said that even after Elvis and Priscilla were wed, the marriage wasn’t consummated for quite some time. Coppola herself doesn’t quite seem to buy that version, as the two did frequently share a bed, even as he is shown choosing sleeping pills over sex, every time. While Priscilla also partakes of the pills at his behest, her increasingly ignored need to be desired by the man she loves becomes her great pain. This all too common relational failing is not something that movies get right very often, but Priscilla, in its ruminating hollow opulence, absolutely nails.
For me, this defining aspect is what enables the film to stand on its own but also coexist alongside of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which, due to its prominence and proximity of release dates, can’t help but draw the comparison. In that film, we see how Elvis was manipulated by the devilish Col. Tom Parker. In Priscilla, we see how that manipulation is passed along through Elvis, the depleting conduit who commits to a Vertigo-like fixation with this younger girl. And before she knows it, she’s caught in a trap she can’t get out of.
TAYLOR: To her sanguine eyes, it’s a honeypot trap—and ours, too. The makeup, hairstyling, costume, and production design departments have outdone themselves, and not just in recreating Graceland and the Presley couple’s well-known looks. Priscilla’s transformations across the decades are so remarkable I didn’t always recognize her, and because as you noted, Jim, Spaeny chameleons into every emotion and look with ease. The maximalist femininity of Priscilla’s aesthetic is on trend with 2023’s “girlie” revival for which Barbie, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift have become icons, but it’s also consistent with the maximalist femininity for which Coppola is known as much as the “maximalist flair” for which Luhrmann is known.
Priscilla is Coppola’s best-looking feature since 2006’s Marie Antoinette, and like that ill-fated queen, Priscilla an adolescent when she begins courting royalty. She ends up trapped in a gaudy castle by mismatched power dynamics and her inability to seduce a king, but instead of pressure to produce an heir, her husband expects her to be his personal Barbie doll (a toy which coincidentally debuted the same year they met). Elvis rocks Jailhouse Rock stripes as he pleases, but he must approve her sartorial choices. He scores his performances with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as if he’s the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he can’t notice a flagrant flirt’s perfume is the same as his wife’s. She copes with her boredom in her prison-home like the French queen: shopping and piling her hair higher and higher. (Also like the homebound teens in The Virgin Suicides: perfecting her pedicure.) Because Priscilla lived in 1973 instead of 1793, she escapes with her head still in tact.