In Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, a Complex True Story Is Gracefully Told
A smitten rock star rescuing you from your pedestrian teenage life is such a powerful, enduring fantasy that popular fanfiction about Harry Styles doing just that was recently adapted into a hit film series. (The After films, which I do not recommend you watch.) What a ludicrous, naive dream, one largely never realized in the real world. Though, of course, there was Priscilla Presley, who was all of 14 years old when she was ushered into Elvis Presley’s inner circle and soon became the main object of his affection, and eventually his wife. As is often the case, the true story was far more complex than adolescent imagination allows, a fact that the filmmaker Sofia Coppola seeks to illustrate in her new film, Priscilla, which premiered here at the Venice Film Festival on Monday.
Based on Presley’s memoir, and made under her consultation, Priscilla presents Coppola with a tricky task. She wants to honor a woman’s memories while also being clear-eyed about what were some pretty alarming circumstances. It’s a challenge she greets with measured insight; Priscilla is neither lurid nor sugar coated. It’s a sensitive, if slight, look at a young woman rousing from a dream and confronting waking life.
Priscilla is played by Cailee Spaeny, who is 25 but credibly embodies a high school freshman. She’s lonely in West Germany, where her military officer father has been stationed, far from the cozy trappings of mid-century American teenagehood. But there is Elvis, drafted as a soldier, living in a house not far from the base. Priscilla and Elvis’s meeting, reduced to a brief montage moment in Baz Luhrmann’s 2021 film Elvis, is laid out in detail in Priscilla, capturing both Priscilla’s innocent ardor and a creeping sense of predation. (Presley, who was 24, had a friend bring Priscilla to him.)
Elvis endears himself to Priscilla by showing his sensitive side, relating to her his homesickness and his grief over his late mother. Is this an act of grooming? Priscilla does not really editorialize on that, instead calmly showing true events as they happened (or in some version of how they happened) and letting the audience make assessments. As Elvis, Jacob Elordi—best known as a tortured hunk on HBO’s Euphoria—carefully calibrates Elvis’s appeal and his pill-addled, domineering presence, his exacting demands and storms of frightening anger. (His misogyny, too.) It’s a more enlightening take on the man than the one seen in Elvis, a movie more interested in broadstrokes iconography than interiority.
Priscilla is not an artist biopic, and thus we see barely any moments of Elvis on stage. The film stays close to Priscilla, depicting her isolation as she enters life as a kept woman (a kept teenager, at first) at Graceland, pining for Elvis to return from a tour or a film shoot and once again wrap her up in the warmth of his attention. Perhaps this is a telling picture of how it was for too many women of that era (and other eras): passed from father to husband, forever negotiating her place in the realms of men.
Spaeny lucidly delineates Priscilla’s mounting struggle for independence, her disillusionment complicated, still, by real love. She and Coppola choose stillness and quiet over flourish, crafting a portrait in gentle tones. Coppola’s aesthetics are immaculate but not fussy, there are no outsized gestures toward the curious customs of the time. Even Elvis’s style evolution, from clean cut crooner to jumpsuit-wearing oddity, is presented plainly, without wink or affect.
Priscilla is a muted film, but not staid or chilly. Judicious music choices (none of them Elvis tunes, I don’t think) poignantly score moments of Priscilla’s ache and confusion, her girlhood fleeting away so rapidly as the truth of things begins to reveal itself. Priscilla may be Coppola’s most straightforward film to date, spare and controlled. But it is still distinctly one of her signature creations, another of her studies of young women searching for steadiness as they reel through the world.
If there is fault to be found, it may be in the film’s air of passivity, the sense that Priscilla is adrift on currents entirely slowed and quickened by the whims of another person. But sometimes young love, or whatever this was, can feel like that: lost in the sweep of devotion, carried away from one’s former self. In the case of Priscilla, that self was barely formed when Elvis came calling (or had her come calling on him). Which is one of the great sadnesses of the film, the lingering question of who Priscilla, bright and decent, might have become had she never had her identity so subsumed by her famous and looming husband.
But that is the course that history took, and Priscilla is a fine rendering of that. No doubt there will be critics of the film who think that Coppola should have gone harder on the wrongness of the relationship. Maybe they’ll be right. Though, Priscilla Presley’s involvement with the film may be the only necessary response to such an argument. Here is, with all possible bias and omission accepted, how she remembers it, a recollection given grace and potent meaning by Coppola’s craft. Priscilla is not an emotional epic, nor is it a furious correction of the record. It is, instead, a convincing and humane sketch of a young woman caught up in something vast and eternally defining. She may as well be wandering Versailles.