Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker who, from the moment she arrived on the scene with 1999’s moody and melancholy The Virgin Suicides, announced herself with a style, perspective and narrative approach all her own. The screenwriter and director, essentially fully formed from the get go, is the daughter of one of the masters of contemporary American cinema, Francis Ford Coppola—which might have something to do with it. But with each subsequent film, Coppola has honed her craft to fit the story she’s telling, from a pervasive sense of isolation in the largest city in the world in Lost in Translation to the cotton-candy-colored existential crisis and royal malaise of Marie Antoinette.
Her eighth feature film, Priscilla, is no exception, as she recounts a period in the life of one of the biggest celebrities of all time, Elvis Presley, through the eyes of the woman who was by his side through it all. The film is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, and fittingly starts when the pair meet at a house party in Germany, where Elvis was serving his military duty, and ends (no spoilers here) when the marriage ultimately dissolves roughly fifteen years later.
In her first major leading role, Cailee Spaeny is Priscilla, from a doe-eyed 14-year-old invited to Elvis’s house party by friends of his, through to her mid-twenties as a mother and young woman making the hardest decision of her life. She is small, both in stature and screen presence, rarely speaking at all, and even then doing so with quietness. For most of the movie, she’s a child, after all. As a tall, skinny Elvis, Jacob Elordi is amenable enough, though it feels like a small grace that Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd keep him often in the shadows, as if to keep up the illusion. Together, they strike quite a familiar silhouette, evoking this famous couple well enough to allow us to get lost in the rest of Coppola’s soft, pastel-hued narrative.
Much of what’s recounted here could be considered, to use the parlance of the day, problematic. Priscilla first met Elvis when she was 14 years old (he was ten years her senior); by all accounts—and as depicted in the film—he was immediately smitten. The two saw each other frequently after that first encounter, and stayed in touch after Elvis returned to the States, to the point that Priscilla was granted permission by her parents to be flown to visit him in Los Angeles, then Memphis, eventually moving there to finish high school and be closer to him. Though Coppola does her best to proceed with a light touch around all of this—Priscilla is always a willing participant, a girl with a crush turning into more; her parents are always informed and involved; Elvis even confirms to her (and us) that he wants to save that for their wedding night—there is nevertheless a bit of an ick factor around it all. It’s small, and the film surrounding it is beautiful, but it’s there.
The most interesting aspect of the movie is, as it should be, the dynamic between the Presleys. Through Priscilla’s eyes, Elvis is a kind and gentle partner, someone who only wants the best for her and them, who prioritizes her above all others. Sure, he has his proclivities (and his pills), but he loves her and her alone, and even in his worst moments, he always returns to that kindness. Coppola offers glimpses into the more toxic aspects of their relationship, from his abuse to his affairs, but it’s done with kid gloves on, as if she is afraid to tarnish the King’s reputation too deeply.
Spaeny’s performance matures with her character, and she gracefully ushers us through the chaotic years of settling into Graceland, a media-frenzy of a wedding, an unexpected pregnancy, and life with a man constantly pulled in dozens of different directions, none of them towards his young family. Unfortunately, all this means Priscilla is a bit adrift in Elvis’s life, and her lack of direction permeates into the film itself as it begins to play like scenes on the back of a series of index cards, checking boxes from one moment of the superstar’s life to the next, all experienced at a remove. Eventually, we feel the distance, too.
But like her previous films, Coppola manages a sense of internal intimacy with moments observed in unexpected places. We come to know Priscilla through brief but meaningful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashes of character, from the way she considers the pill in her hand Elvis has given her before she pops it in her mouth to her forlorn kiss on baby Lisa Marie’s head as Elvis leaves them behind to embark on his next big tour. The filmmaker has no shortage of sympathy for her subject, and she’s not afraid to invite us to join her (worth noting that the actual Priscilla Presley is an executive producer on the film).
In an industry dominated by men and their particular worldview, Coppola and her filmmaking that centers the female experience is always a welcome change of pace. Priscilla continues this trend, and that’s a gift. It’s also, like the filmmaker’s previous work, gorgeous to look at and often breathtakingly filmed. For me, at least, the other aspects of the film—namely the plot and character development—ultimately, if ever-so-slightly, disappoint, as much as it pains me to say so (and it really pains me). Fans of Coppola’s work will find quite a lot to enjoy here, but for those just discovering the filmmaker, Priscilla is not her best entry point.