Sofia Coppola has made a career out of cinematically capturing young women on the precipice of adulthood. We saw it in The Virgin Suicides, Maria Antionette, The Beguiled, and we see it in the opening sequence of her latest film Priscilla. Based on Priscilla Prestley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, the esteemed filmmaker attempts to put a sidelined and pedestaled American icon at the center of her own story, in a way other depictions of her have not.
We first meet Priscilla as a high school freshman, stationed with her family in Germany in the late 1950s. The first time we see her whole face, she’s sitting at a soda counter, sipping on a float and working on school work – a subtle reminder of how young she is. In that same scene, she is propositioned by a military official to attend a party where Elvis is meant to make an appearance. A tale as old as time, they meet, have a five-year courtship, and consummate their relationship on their wedding night, all the while the cracks in their relationship start to show.
If last year’s Elvis was all spectacle, Priscilla is grounded in an edited reality. Because Ms. Prestley was heavily involved in the film’s production, we can feel her hand guiding the story along at times, especially in the film’s final 15 heavily sanitized minutes. Her journey from kept daughter to Elvis’ pet wife to independent woman is not a clean one and her character lacks the agency you’d expect from a liberation story.
Sofia Coppola knows how to visualize young womanhood and she has a brutal job hammering home Priscilla’s lack of agency and surplus of youth. With a muted color palette and a soundtrack composed mainly of ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s female artists, Coppola inserts her signature style into every frame. Jacob Elordi throws in infantilizing terms of endearment whenever he can, subtly controlling her with the drop of a suggestion. His performance never overshadows Cailee Spaeney but rather shows the overlooked side of Elvis’ private life.
While Elvis overlooked the Presleys’ marital woes, Priscilla forces you to grapple with them. Coppola factors in the idea that Priscilla could have been groomed, that their relationship was at least toxic, if not abusive. Spaeney’s performance, especially during scenes of turmoil, is quietly captivating, wrestling with her circumstances under a heavy lid of false eyelashes.
The film ends how you expect it to, with its leading lady driving away. Surprisingly, Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is playing in the background. Fans of the Country icon will know that Elvis actually wanted the song but demanded Parton hand over the rights. It’s a cinematic moment that hits harder when you know some of the backstory and nuance. That seems to be a theme with Priscilla. Though Coppola’s muted style grounds the film, the more you know the more effective the film is.
A24’s Priscilla will be released nationwide on Friday, November 3rd.