Priscilla review

Priscilla is a direct response to Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic Elvis, and Sofia Coppola at her best

4.5 out of 5 stars

Everything about Jacob Elordi’s performance as Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is big. He’s towering and lanky. When he’s on-screen, he’s front and centre — he takes up space in the frame but also physically within the spaces he’s occupying. As he first meets the teenage Priscilla while stationed in Germany, he sits by her side, his large hands tense and restless. As the pair talk in hushed tones, barely able to look at each other, his hands become the audience’s focus. They’re the hands that helped make him a star; they’re beautiful and tender, revealing discomfort and apprehension. At that moment, his hands reveal our false assumptions about the man known as the King. 

Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla directly responds to the bombastic iconography of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir, the film reshapes the narrative of Presley’s life from new eyes. Whereas Priscilla was little more than a wallflower or plot convenience in last year’s film, she’s central here. Like many of Coppola’s films, this one is soft and dream-like in structure, working less as the portrait of an artist as the portrait of a girl becoming a woman under the thumb of one of the world’s most famous men.

The film opens with shots of Priscilla’s painted toes walking carefully through shag carpeting, evoking the nail-polished toes of Lolita. We cut to Priscilla in Graceland, preparing her hair, makeup and clothes. Reflecting on the iconography of Elvis’s good little wife, she’s reduced to a series of shapes and colours: the curves of her winged eyeliner, her artificially jet-black hair, the soft purse of her lips and the pitted dimples of her cheeks. Her voice is childlike, delicate like crystal. Priscilla is always conveniently within reach, dressed up as a man’s fantasy doll, slotted onto a shelf of his life. Before he leaves her for the first time to return to Memphis, he tells (or warns) her, “Promise me that you’ll stay the way you are now.”

Coppola’s film approaches Elvis less as an icon than as a man. He’s rarely seen performing, except in snippets at a party or on TV. He’s charming and lanky, unable to blend into the crowd. Beyond his outsized fame, it’s easy to understand why Priscilla would fall for him and just as easy to understand why she couldn’t fall out from beneath him. Coppola imagines the man in his most intimate moments, unobserved and unguarded; he’s casual about drugs and obsessed with image. He’s the type of man who sincerely believes being tall is a virtue, Priscilla’s petite stature the perfect accessory to his fragile masculinity. 

Like Marie Antoinette in structure, Priscilla underlines the inherent dullness of glamour. Graceland overflows with objects and textures, stylish, expensive and undeniably kitsch. Coppola prefers using the almost soap opera feature of long fades to black on episodes from the Presleys’ shared life, stylistically evoking a kind of drugged-out, heavy-lidded exhaustion. Though not quite as bold as inserting Converse sneakers, the movie also adopts an anachronistic soundtrack to better capture the new and exciting world Priscilla finds herself in. The movie feels like a dream that the sleeper, come morning, realizes was a nightmare. 

It’s reductive to suggest the film merely depicts an unequal relationship. The Elvis-ness of it all is a large part of their relationship, but it’s not just that. Lonely and young, full of longing and complex feelings, Priscilla’s impressionability, like that of many sheltered young women, becomes the central motif. She’s prime for moulding, and Elvis turns her into the girl he wants her to be. More than just changing her hair and style, he turns her into an accessory who will overlook his cheating and temper. Ironically, as with many women in her place, she naturally drifts away as she becomes more of what he wants. The wife of his dreams takes on a life of her own and walks out. 

In a tense bedtime conversation, Presley scolds Priscilla, “We have to control our desires, or our desires control us.” He diminishes her need for love and affection, returning it only when convenient for him. As Priscilla becomes a mother and Elvis becomes more monstrous, we watch as she learns to follow her desires. Her autonomy and identity were uprooted from the catered image imposed on her. The film showcases how desire liberates us, takes us to unexpected places and invites us through a series of becomings. As with most of Coppola’s films, the wistful passage from girlhood to adulthood is met with melancholia but not outright sadness. To no longer be a girl is not a tragedy; it’s an opportunity to be your own person. 

Coppola’s films are always an event, and Priscilla is no different. It operates within a filmography fascinated by girlhood and white femininity and sheds a harsh light on the princess fairy tale. Cailee Spaeny performs with astonishing sensitivity as Priscilla, capturing her burgeoning willfulness amidst her coveted adolescent femininity. A film hinged on careful observation and subtle manipulations, Priscilla is Sofia Coppola at her best. ■

Priscilla (directed by Sofia Coppola)

Priscilla screens as part of Festival du Nouveau Cinéma at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Sunday, Oct. 15, 8 p.m. Priscilla will open in Montreal cinemas on Nov. 3.

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