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Priscilla

Sofia Coppola is a personal filmmaker whose work follows a thematic through line: her pictures are all, in one way or another, about captivity and isolation. For the characters held captive the cage is often a gilded one, and the cage in search of a bird (in Kafka’s phrase) in “Priscilla” is Elvis Presley.

The King famously met Priscilla Beaulieu in 1959 when he was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany; Priscilla was the daughter of another officer stationed there and was, well, 14 at the time the two were introduced. Coppola’s movie, written by the director and based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, honors the author by giving us her perspective. And while latter-day considerations of Presley’s behavior in courting, or one might say capturing, Priscilla are replete with condemnations of how creepy it was—the word “groomer” is tossed around, and in some specific ways seen here, it is absolutely apt—from the point of view of a dreamy, distracted Austin Texas girl far from home the attention of this very shy superstar is exhilarating.

In obviously tight collaboration with cinematographer Philipe Le Sourd (who shot Coppola’s “The Beguiled”) and editor Sarah Flack (who has been with Coppola since “Lost in Translation”; I’m obliged here also to disclose that Sarah is a friend), Coppola gives us a world of beautiful and surprisingly still surfaces. In her room in a modest house in Germany, Priscilla reads fan magazines; once out in Graceland and instructed not to be seen on the lawn too much, she reclines in living rooms and dens that got much tackier after she divorced Presley in early 1973. A lot of the times Priscilla just doesn’t know what to do with herself. As her superstar husband has his film career mismanaged by a never-seen-Colonel Tom Parker (did Sofia Coppola see Hanks in “Elvis” and say, “There’s just no topping Tom Hanks, I shouldn’t even try?” Actually, I don’t think that’s it), he’ll leave Memphis for Los Angeles and tell his bride to “keep the home fires burning.”

What’s Priscilla there for, anyway? Especially since, having arranged to separate her from her family and be more or less something like her guardian, he firmly refuses to sleep with her despite her increasing requests for intimacy. When they first meet in Germany, Elvis, completely sincere and earnest, tells the ninth-grader (and he here is shocked to be told that she’s that young) that he is lonesome for a girl to talk to. His mom had just passed away. It all seems so innocent.

In their early relationship, they’re both naïfs. Elvis has a poster of “On The Waterfront” in his bedroom, and he tells Priscilla that when he returns to the States, he wants to study at the Actor’s Studio to emulate Marlon Brando and James Dean. He takes her to see “Beat the Devil,” and Priscilla is amused and awed that her friend knows all of Bogart’s lines in the movie by heart. He dreams of an expansive artistic life. She dreams just of being with him. Of the two, only one will have their dreams come true. And then the dream won’t be enough.

This cool, unhurried movie is firmly anchored by a spectacularly modulated performance by Caillee Spaeney. The 25-year-old plays 14 so damn well that the viewer almost doubts that she’ll be able to credibly age into a woman nearing 30. But she does, beautifully. As Elvis, Jacob Elordi towers over her; the contrast is an exaggeration from real-life but an effective one. This Elvis is soft-spoken, given to discomfiting bursts of anger as he comes to rely more and more on medications to boost energy and get to sleep; all the stuff that killed the man, in the end, is here in ostensibly more manageable form, but Coppola’s storytelling does convey its insidious creep. The movie enjoys getting into some of Presley’s early ‘60s idiosyncrasies; he goes through a Bible-study phase, reads the Autobiography of a Yogi, and even experiments with LSD with Priscilla. Coppola’s brief depiction of their trip is one of the more credible accounts of psychedelic experience in recent film. And all this time, even through movie-set affairs rumored and/or real, he keeps Priscilla chaste until after marriage. And then knocks her up immediately.

Although Priscilla’s thwarted desire is underscored for the first 90 minutes, the movie skips the wedding’s consummation. Surely, Coppola wasn’t paying attention to the young scolds on social media who hate sex scenes because they don’t advance the story. Given the extensive set-up of the night and its aftermath, if any sex scene would have enhanced the story, it might have been this one. It’s hard to say if Coppola is being indefinite, ambiguous, or withholding by not including it; the fact that Priscilla Presley is an executive producer and booster of the movie might have prompted some discretion.  

By the movie's end, we see that Elvis has become a captive himself, of his own fame, and much more. Shot from behind at one of his countless Vegas shows, we see he’s caught in a trap, one that the woman he jailed out of what he sincerely thought was love, and who filled a genuine need, can’t help him with. His tragedy becomes Priscilla’s liberation. And so Coppola’s movie resolves on notes both poignant and haunting.

This review was filed from the Venice Film Festival. "Priscilla" opens on October 27, 2023.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Priscilla movie poster

Priscilla (2023)

Rated NR

110 minutes

Cast

Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley

Jacob Elordi as Elvis Presley

Dagmara Domińczyk as Ann Beaulieu

Emily Mitchell as Lisa Marie Presley

Jorja Cadence as Patsy Presley

Rodrigo Fernandez- Stoll as Alan 'Hog Ears' Fortas

Tim Post as Vernon Presley

Luke Humphrey as Terry West

Ari Cohen as Captain Beaulieu

Director

Writer (book)

Cinematographer

Editor

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