Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film “Priscilla” (2023)
In her best-selling memoir “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla Presley described her relationship with the King of Rock and Roll: “I was Elvis’s doll, his own living doll, to fashion as he pleased. The more we were together, the more I came to resemble him in every way. His tastes, his insecurities, his hang-ups – all became mine. My sole ambition was to please him, to be rewarded with his approval and affection. When he criticized me, I fell to pieces.”
Countless young women on social media like to claim that their lives are “written and directed by Sofia Coppola,” followed by a montage featuring Lana Del Rey’s sultry voice in the background, the coquette aesthetic, varying pastels and dainty ribbons. For many, no one captures the glories and miseries of girlhood quite like Coppola. From films like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” Sofia Coppola has always been interested in exposing the harrowing underbelly of female adolescence that hides beneath its ornate laces. Her latest work, “Priscilla,” a biopic that explores the marriage between Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), is no different.
Elvis and Priscilla’s “love story” is an iconic, albeit heavily bastardized piece of Americana. Coppola herself described the pair as “kind of the closest we have to royalty.” One of the strengths of “Priscilla” is that it does not shy away from portraying the predatory nature of Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship. The two first meet at a house gathering when Priscilla is fourteen and Elvis is twenty-four. As she roams the halls of her high school donning a silver heart-shaped locket, Priscilla’s youth and innocence is made abundantly clear to the audience. Through the mist of hairspray and thick strokes of mascara, Priscilla is first and foremost a child thrust into the cold periphery of Elvis’s stardom. When she tries on various outfits in front of the rockstar and his groupies, Priscilla resembles a little girl playing dress-up with her mother’s clothes. Her immaturity sticks out like a sore thumb, making her involvement in Elvis’s drug-induced debauchery all the more disturbing.
Like many of Coppola’s previous films, “Priscilla” firmly puts forth the idea that a golden cage is still a cage. The lavish rooms of Graceland (Elvis’s mansion in Memphis) carry a pervasive and suffocating sense of loneliness. This ache lingers for the entirety of the film, unable to be concealed by thrilling weekends in Vegas or a sea of glamorous dresses. Priscilla’s seemingly alluring lifestyle has a dark, empty interior that robs her of many years. With her agency stripped away, she becomes a mere vessel for Elvis’s interests and desires. What once appeared to be a fairy tale essentially becomes a purgatory for the young woman.
For Priscilla, life becomes a constant, draining performance. There is a gutting scene in the film where she carefully applies fake eyelashes before going into labor. It’s a painful reminder of the impossible expectations that the patriarchy impresses upon women. Priscilla bends over backwards to become Elvis’s ideal image of a perfect, submissive wife in hopes that he will reciprocate any form of intimacy, yet he remains a distant, aloof voice on the phone. “Priscilla” thus provides a poignant and introspective portrait of the isolation that abuse fosters.
Under Coppola’s skillful direction, “Priscilla” features dreamlike visuals that lulls the audience into a false sense of security. The soundtrack is masterfully crafted to reflect the lavender haze that Priscilla experiences with wistful classics such as “Forever” by The Little Dippers. Coppola brilliantly immerses the viewer into Elvis’s tantalizing world of excess. The film’s unforgettable atmosphere makes it an absolute must-watch. Furthermore, Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi bring so much life to their respective characters and provide exceptional performances. I sincerely hope that this film gains its well-deserved Academy recognition in the upcoming Oscar season.
Coppola’s nuanced portrayal of abuse in “Priscilla” is fascinating. She does not resort to characterizing Elvis as a mustache-twirling villain, rather a pathetic, narcissistic man-child who desperately depends on Priscilla’s innocence as a means to ground himself. As a result, Coppola demonstrates the infuriating banality of Elvis’s malice. He’s never quite aware of the torment he inflicts upon Priscilla, asking at the end: “Have I lost you to another man?” Priscilla, along with the audience, stares at him dumbfounded. “You’re losing me to a life of my own,” she replies.
As she grows separated from Elvis, Priscilla regains the light in her eyes. Her hair color reverts to chestnut brown, losing the signature jet-black, voluminous style that Elvis demanded of her.
Priscilla’s emancipation from her gilded prison does not come in a thunderous roar, instead reflecting the film’s overall subdued, forlorn tone. She drives past the gates of Graceland as Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” plays in the background. For the first time in Priscilla’s life, there is nothing but open road and endless possibilities ahead of her.