Priscilla is the work of a filmmaker playing to her strengths. While director Sofia Coppola might be called a “nepo baby” because her father is Francis Ford Coppola, the point of the insult is to call out unacknowledged privilege. Meanwhile, Coppola’s work is largely about growing up in the orbit of powerful men and what that does to one’s own wants and self-worth. Her take on Priscilla Presley, wife of one of the most famous musicians of his century, is Coppola playing a familiar tune — but one that’s getting a little old.
The film’s title character, Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny) is, of course, the wife of Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). But although Priscilla is in the orbit of planet Elvis, the strength of the film is what it doesn’t show. Much in the way Bob Harris’ fame is left mostly off-screen in Lost in Translation, all the Elvis stuff exists outside the walls of Graceland. There is a short glimpse of rabid fans at the beginning, the occasional whisper behind Priscilla’s back about you-know-who. But in the movie, you won’t hear a single Elvis song. Coppola even nearly gets away without showing him onstage, either, except for one short scene that’s not exactly flattering (though a part of me wishes the film had committed more strongly and omitted this, too).
The Elvis we get instead is the domestic one, a growing, brooding menace that evokes the moody jock Elordi became famous for in Euphoria. Coppola’s Elvis is robbed of onstage swagger and hip gyrating, and the only reminder that Elordi is one of the biggest musicians to ever live is the occasional Southern “baby” he tacks on to the end of a sentence. It’s a pretty good performance all told.
Cailee Spaeny is even better. Her performance is delicate, though not fragile, and she evokes isolation and loneliness through a tempered expression. Even more impressive is that she is convincing as 14-year-old Priscilla, the age at which she is problematically courted by Elvis, all the way to age 30, when she finally leaves him. Fame eventually consumes Elvis; meanwhile, Priscilla is a story of escape.
The film is full of Coppola’s stylistic staples. It takes place behind the closed doors of the rich and famous. Ahistorical music cues buzz with swirls of fuzzy synth. Someone gazes longingly out a car window. And of course, there’s the fascination with material things. Every prop is delectable, from the furniture and clothing to the drops of acid placed atop sugar cubes. After the press screening, someone described Coppola’s oeuvre to me as “rich girl shit.” (They meant that positively.)
Surprisingly, given the era, it’s also Coppola’s least colorful film — interiors especially are dimly lit, with heavy shadows falling across the actors. It might quietly be her most visually alluring film, even if it isn’t as memorable as a cab ride through neon-soaked Tokyo.
They exude symptoms of depression, but would never describe themselves as depressed
Still, something about the movie feels off. For one thing, Coppola’s character studies of both Priscilla and Elvis are fairly shallow. (Strangely, she can take “shallow” to a satisfying place.) The balance of the film feels heavily weighted to the first half, which moves briskly, and becomes a weird slog in the second. Then, it ends somewhat suddenly, with resolution but little revelation. What are we supposed to take from the life of Priscilla Presley?
What Coppola comes against is the hard limit of her blank-slate characters. They long for something. We’re just not sure what. They exude symptoms of depression but would never describe themselves as depressed. These women are quiet and distant, perhaps relatable in that way.
But eight movies in, we’re only a little bit closer to accessing them. It’s even more frustrating when you consider that Priscilla Presley is a real person, and this movie is based on her memoir, Elvis and Me. The film doesn’t need historical accuracy, but it desperately yearns for emotional specificity. Surely, there was more to glean from the book? There’s little else Spaeny can project in such a spare script.
We have no sense of Priscilla’s desires because she was enraptured by Elvis at such a young age that she never was able to establish a sense of herself. As she pulls away from Elvis in the final scene, we have no sense of where she’s headed. In the hands of a different director, such a moment should feel like a triumph. Here, it is neither that, nor is it bittersweet (though the song choice might suggest otherwise).
Priscilla is Coppola’s strongest work in over a decade. But if her characters are going to keep feeling so unfulfilled, so aimless, I wish Coppola had a clear place to take them.