Tiny toes sporting a fresh pedicure step daintily across a carpet as a harp plays. Garish decor, swans, tchotchkes, and framed records tell us we’re at the epicenter of Americana: Graceland. Those cherubic feet belong to Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Cailee Spaeny), the young heroine of Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla, a dark and delicate depiction of every teenage girl’s fantasy. The film acts as an epic that mythologizes and exposes the American Dream while doubling as a sparkling fairy tale as spiky as one penned by The Brothers Grimm. Coppola has a knack for capturing the details that make girlhood beautiful while imbuing the rooms and landscapes they occupy with imminent danger. Not since her immaculate directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, has the filmmaker so perfectly illustrated the emotions and experiences of teenage girls and what the outside world is missing in their curious observations of them.
Priscilla begins in 1959 in a diner in Germany, where a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu sits alone doing her homework. She’s a military brat, used to moving to new locations and experiencing teenage ennui, not the miraculous events that follow. A man approaches Priscilla and asks her if she likes Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). She replies, “Who doesn’t?” The response perfectly displays the world’s infatuation with Elvis in the 1950s and introduces an airy, oneiric quality to the film. Every girl dreams of being the chosen one, plucked from obscurity by a star like Elvis; she just happened to be his type (dark hair, blue eyes) and in the right place at the right time. After asking her parents if she can meet him (she is just a teenager), Priscilla is chauffeured to a lively party where she sees Elvis sitting behind a piano, surrounded by people. She catches his eye instantly, and the music stops. Later, he invites her to his bedroom and tells her that his late mother would’ve loved her and that she reminds him of home, thousands of miles away. Coppola paints the early scenes of Priscilla’s life in Germany in drab, muted tones. She dresses like the schoolgirl she is, often wearing whites and browns, her mousy brown hair pulled up in a bouncy ponytail, contrasting Elvis’ bejeweled existence and making her inevitable transformation all the more stark. She’s as malleable as clay to him, a blank canvas eager to be pulled away from a dull world where she hasn’t yet formed an identity of her own.
Elordi’s grounded exploration of Elvis never falls into the trap of impersonation. In fact, his physical portrayal of the King of Rock and Roll sometimes feels like the sister performance to Josh Hartnett’s Trip Fontaine in The Virgin Suicides, a thick-haired, towering heartthrob ready to disarm you with his weaponized charm. However, Elvis isn’t just a boy at Priscilla’s high school eager to win the unattainable girl’s heart. He’s an icon associated with gaudy excess and charisma who, at 24 years old, decided to slowly groom a teenage girl, pursuing her under the possibility and promise that she would be his. The age difference is not a deterrent for him, and instead, he woos Priscilla and purrs terms of endearment that fetishize her based on her petite frame and childlike features (“Baby” and “Little One” are his go-to’s). It would be tempting for a writer-director to take the easy route and make a cartoon villain version of Elvis. Instead, Coppola creates a complex devil in disguise whose conservative Southern ideals are masked by chivalry and who uses his emotions to connect with millions and manipulate others. She also, wisely, never turns Priscilla into a victim of her circumstances, instead opting for a deeper rumination on the character’s loneliness and that electric zap that comes with first love. Elordi is over a foot taller than Spaeny, and he, quite literally, casts a large shadow that works as a melancholic metaphor for Priscilla’s existence by his side. Coppola shows the genesis of Priscilla’s identity as a woman bound to that shadow of a larger-than-life persona while separating her from it onscreen in real time. It feels hopeful and deeply profound and acts as a core text for anyone who has fallen in love with a man whose presence swallows them whole and anyone who inevitably will in the future.
Based on subject and executive producer Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s page-turner of a memoir, “Elvis and Me,” Coppola’s script is nothing short of miraculous. It feels not just like we’re sprawled out on the bedroom floor reading Priscilla’s diary, but instead that we’re living in it. It’s a peek behind the curtain that never feels voyeuristic. Coppola is the auteur best equipped to access that diary’s dreamy and poisonous qualities, detailing every aspect of Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis with unbridled empathy. After Priscilla meets Elvis, she understandably cannot stop thinking about him. How can anyone return to the doldrums of normal life after being alone with Elvis? Production designer Tamara Deverell illustrates the passage of time and the space Elvis occupies rent-free in Priscilla’s mind with creative, period-accurate details in a montage that includes records, magazines, and other Elvis memorabilia as she flips the pages of her calendar waiting for him to call. That call finally comes in May of ‘62 with an invitation to Memphis to visit Graceland. Clearly, Elvis has been thinking about her, too. With this escalation in Priscilla’s story, Coppola lays out one of the film’s greatest tricks. We know that Elvis is too old for Priscilla, that he left her waiting by the phone for years, and the real history that she is yet to know, and yet, we understand. We understand that rush of endorphins that only comes when you’re young and infatuation could turn into love. The story also highlights that fragile feeling of walking on a tightrope when on the precipice of teenage romance. As Priscilla begs her parents to let her see Elvis, it’s clear that she believes she’s lucky even to be considered and that one roadblock could mean he never calls again.
As Priscilla goes off to visit Elvis in Memphis, she enters into a whirlwind relationship that she is frankly unprepared for. Coppola and editor Sarah Flack (Lost in Translation, Somewhere) create electric montages to showcase the two lives that Priscilla is suddenly leading–the drug-fueled all-nighters with Elvis and her days listlessly daydreaming at school. Venice Best Actress winner Cailee Spaeny is wondrous as Priscilla, her eyes sparkling as she thinks of him, her childlike innocence present in one minute, and her courageous resolve in the next. Spaeny also delicately captures the purity and confusion of first love and the inherent vulnerability of desiring someone who ultimately shuts you down. Much like Marie Antoinette, the need and want for physical intimacy comes from the woman who happens to be repeatedly neglected. For Priscilla, this rejection is only exacerbated by the fact that she feels like she could lose him at any moment if she doesn’t perform to his standards. Elvis’ desires are paramount, and Priscilla must always follow suit. She’s not trapped in a loveless marriage, pressured to produce an heir, but she is in a state of limbo, forever thinking, “But why did he pick me?” and convinced that this is the best and only option for her.
When we think of Priscilla Presley, it’s impossible not to think of her voluminous black hair (thank you, Aquanet), liquid eyeliner in a cat eye, manicured nails, and thick false eyelashes. While a makeover or transformation scene is a staple of many a romance or coming-of-age story, they typically have a shiny gloss that excites you for the character’s transformation. When Mia Thermopolis’ eyebrows are tamed in The Princess Diaries, or Vivian gets a sartorial upgrade in Pretty Woman, there is a lightness in the air. Coppola plays off of this existing trope as Priscilla’s hair is dyed black and teased up high, her youthful face is caked with makeup, and her wardrobe is hand-selected by Elvis. Here, a sense of darkness is bubbling underneath these moments as we know that Elvis is turning Priscilla into the version of the woman that he wants, stripping her of any agency. Coppola seems to understand the sadness in the fact that the trademark look and style of Priscilla Presley was actually a lacquered veneer selected by Elvis to match his image.
The hollow lure of the fairy tale is only enhanced by the dreamlike haze of Phillipe Le Sourd’s (The Beguiled, On The Rocks) cinematography, where he presents Graceland as a gilded heartbreak hotel where Priscilla is the only lonely guest. She’s moved there and will finish high school in Memphis under the supervision of Elvis’ staff. Like Coppola’s semi-anachronistic historical portrait, Marie Antoinette, Priscilla seems too small to occupy such a large estate. When Elvis is away in Hollywood shooting his latest movie, she’s expected to sit around waiting for him. She has nothing but time, and her suspicious mind begins to wonder about Elvis’ rumored infidelity with Ann-Margret. When she wants to get a job at a local boutique to earn some additional money, he won’t let her because it means she might not be home if he calls. He gets her a dog (human companions and visitors are not allowed) as a surprise to keep her occupied. As Priscilla waits at Graceland for Elvis’ return, Coppola illuminates just how boring that fairy tale life she dreamt of is. This isn’t the life anyone should want, but Coppola knows that the temptation is still there, and it’s beguiling.
Priscilla navigates time carefully, moving rapidly to show major life events (i.e., their wedding and Lisa Marie’s birth) in a flash. This isn’t a biopic interested in capturing Priscilla’s entire life but her personal memories of her relationship with Elvis. Perhaps the greatest miracle of the film is that Coppola was denied the rights to Elvis’ music and, in turn, has stripped him of his power over the audience. We don’t see extended performances of Elvis onstage or hear his greatest hits; we only have access to the Elvis that Priscilla knew. Coppola resurrects this timeless American myth only to expose it and allow its once-sidelined heroine the opportunity to move into the driver’s seat of her life for the first time. When the final, gorgeous needle drop plays, we feel a sense of triumph for her as she parts with and acknowledges her past. Hope is a dangerous thing for Priscilla to have, but she has it.
This review is from the 2023 New York Film Festival. A24 will release Priscilla only in theaters on November 3.