ESMÉ FENICK reviews the new Priscilla by Sofia Coppola– a sensitive and subtle exploration of Girlhood.
You can always trust a Sofia Coppola film to be a delicate portrayal of the female gaze. Femininity, girlhood, alienation, loneliness and heartbreak are recurring themes in her work, including her latest film Priscilla (2023). Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, Coppola beautifully paints the girlish, Americana world of Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny). The biopic recounts over a decade of Priscilla’s life including the key milestones of her iconic relationship with Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s flashy and fast-paced Elvis (2022), this film takes on a softer, more intimate approach to exploring a girl’s transition into womanhood, in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous men. Like Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), Priscilla depicts the inherent boredom and dullness that comes with a life of luxury. A central motif of the film is young Priscilla’s impressionability as she becomes confined in Elvis’s home, Graceland, and moulded into the girl he wants her to be.
The film premiered on September 4th at the Venice Film Festival, attended by Priscilla Presley alongside the cast and crew. I also had the privilege of attending, and watching a biopic of a person’s life with them in the room is a remarkable experience. Throughout the film, I kept thinking to myself how vulnerable Priscilla must feel having her life on display to a crowd of strangers. As I sat in close proximity to her, I would occasionally glance over to see a tearful Priscilla who looked overtaken with emotion. It was an intimate experience, watching vulnerable moments of her life unfold in front of my eyes and hers. The film received a 7-minute standing ovation, throughout which a teary Priscilla was comforted by Coppola and the cast. The applause was powerful; it felt warm and electric and made me emotional myself. It was a collective celebration of Priscilla as herself, instead of within the suffocating legacy of Elvis.
Coppola is known for skillfully showing human connection with imagery over speech. In an interview with the American Film Institute, she explained that she finds people in real life don’t often outwardly explain their feelings like they do in films. For this reason, she is more interested in showing how characters feel through the unspoken aspects of life, such as spaces and silences. I found this to be evident in the character of Priscilla, played by Cailee Spaeny. Her subtle yet poignant performance won the Venice Best Actress Award. She portrays Priscilla’s youthful, child-like state perfectly, with her soft-spoken, giddy and girlish persona. Spaeny delicately captures the intensity of being a child wrapped up in an adult world, as well as the profound boredom she experiences waiting for Elvis to return from his tour. The film’s opening shot of Priscilla’s painted toes walking through her blush-pink, shag carpet immediately establishes the youthful nature of her character. Her girlish bedroom provides a stark contrast to the bedroom of Elvis, styled in that classic bordello chic kitsch. Through the spaces Coppola has created, the age and lifestyle differences of Priscilla and Elvis are inherently apparent.
Jacob Elordi’s performance represents a quieter, more domestic side of Elvis. He is portrayed with a focus on his humanity rather than icon status. Elordi’s tall stature towers over Spaeny, potently physicalising their power imbalance. Elordi does not resemble Elvis as much in looks but carries a star-like charm to his character. Coppola recounts meeting Elordi in a coffee shop observing how “all the girls in the room gravitated to him”, which is the type of charisma she imagined Elvis to have. The film provides a complex and unflattering view of Elvis. Elordi’s accent is subtle and soft-spoken, which makes his frequent burst of anger all the more unnerving. His rage is often paired with immediate regret, which alludes to his manipulative and coercive personality. His controlling nature is exemplified in a shopping scene in which he disregards Priscilla’s preferences, telling her she is not allowed to wear print and needs to dye her hair black and wear heavy makeup. He strips her of her agency and identity until she becomes a mere accessory who will overlook his cheating and rage.
Whilst Priscilla puts her life on hold, trapped within the gates of Graceland, Elvis is performing on tour with multiple allegations of affairs. He refrains from having sex with Priscilla, fetishising her childlike innocence, and subjecting her to further control. His clear Madonna-whore complex leaves Priscilla unsatisfied and feeling like there is something wrong with her. She voices “a woman has needs too”, giving agency to her sexuality which Elvis represses, scolding that “we have to control our desires, otherwise our desires control us”. Coppola tactfully presents Elvis’s coercive control and manipulation in an unbiased manner. Elvis’s deeply flawed traits are presented as complex and human, which demonstrates a layer of empathy within this narrative.
The film has a dreamlike haze, similar to Coppola’s debut film The Virgin Suicides (1999). Phillips Le Sourd’s cinematography presents Graceland as an ominous and eerie space. Priscilla seems too small to occupy such a large, luxurious space. Le Sourd’s cinematography savours the pastel colours and gold accents of the setting. Coppola’s trade-mark quick shot montages of Priscilla’s hairspray, eyeliner and pink stilettos build onto a feminine and dreamlike veil. Similarly, to Marie Antoinette (2006), the soundtrack is anachronistic with tracks such as Joans Jett’s (1968) cover of “Crimson and Clover” and Santana’s (1970) “Oye Cómo Va”. This idiosyncratic soundtrack may have resulted from the Elvis Presley Estate denying rights to any Elvis song. The film ends on a poignant note as Elvis’s tragic downfall leads to Priscilla’s liberation. Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (1974) plays as Priscilla drives off into the distance, liberating herself from the shackles of the Elvis world. This song choice is poignant as Parton initially wrote it for Elvis, but he later insisted on owning its publishing rights. Consequently, Parton recorded and published it herself. Thomas Mars, the film’s music scorer, noted how this beautifully mirrored Priscilla’s journey to regaining control over her life.
Overall, Priscilla is Sofia Coppola at her best. She delicately reverts a classic American fairy tale by providing the often-untold female perspective.
Priscilla screened at the Venice film festival; it will be released in UK cinemas on January 5th 2024, with previews from December 16th onwards, including at The Barbican.
Featured image source: Sabrina Lantos for Vogue.com