Warning: This review contains spoilers.
After finishing Priscilla, I rushed to open my Letterboxd account like a true, pretentious film critique and intended to pour my heart into the review section. And yet, I found myself saying very little instead. I merely typed, “It was a pretty, vanilla movie.” I didn’t have the perfect lines to describe it. It was lush, pristine, and muted—in all of the idyllic and demeaning ways possible.
Derived from Priscilla Presley’s book entitled Elvis and Me, the story intends to whisper what was unbeknownst and unlit about the loud and gaudy name of Elvis Presley, and take a chance to look at the woman who blissfully cocooned herself in his world.
With the coquette aesthetic unfolding day-by-day, Priscilla being Sofia Coppola’s latest movie is bound for adoration.However, scrutiny is still undoubted, especially for others who haven't fully grasped her forte to illuminate the unsaturated and delicate window of the female tragedy.
Produced by powerhouse A24, the film was anticipated to be an antithesis to the dashing success of Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis last 2022 which starred Austin Butler. Coppola’s take shows to be an unapologetically critical tale of how Elvis truly was behind the curtain. As aided through Priscilla’s eyes, Elvis’ pastoral grooming towards her is glossed with the sublime beauty of fangirl dream-come-trues, blue eyeshadows, and lipstick-stained love letters, components of a true American sweetheart in the 1960s.
Photo from Priscilla (2023)
America was at war when 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu met 24-year-old matinee rockstar, Elvis Presley in Germany. Played by Cailee Spaney, Priscilla’s world is veiled with your stereotypical teenage girl stuff:perfect pedicures, heart locket necklaces, and milkshakes at your local diner after school. Right from the very first scenes of the movie, when Elvis’ friend Terry West was persuading the Beaulieu parents to allow their daughter to come to the idol’s party, the film takes on a hazy and rosy tint, filling Priscilla’s space with the newfound wonder of crushes and disobedience to the school girl mundanities.
Despite the lush decorations and soft hues, the film's core is the decade-long age gap and power play between Priscilla and Elvis. As Priscilla exchanged her chaste glances and hushed conversations with Elvis as he hosted his party full of grown men, the lingering question of how these men found out about Priscilla was left unanswered, looming quietly in the background. As she giggled and got kissed on the cheek, Elvis became Priscilla’s very first rebellion, her first secret.
Almost every girl had that once—that older guy in your school that you fawned over. Even my own mother told me that boys mature later in life than girls, and liking them wouldn’t be much of a problem. So to see it faithful to the nuances of what it’s like being a girl at 14, bewitched with the desire to be with a popular casanova singer swooned by millions, is like another completed chapter to a teen girl’s problematic fantasy.
As Priscilla’s life became fainter and her eyes gazed far ahead at Elvis’ turned back at her as he left for war, two years were spent secluded in her pink bedroom, letters on letters piling up like a prayer as she wished for the icon to grace her way again. It is known that one-time summer flings are always a staple romance route in Hollywood, and at this point in the film, Priscilla’s boredom transcends the audience itself. While I was watching, despite my knowing that in some way or another, Elvis will surely pull some strings to get his ‘little one’, I was also faced with the same annoyance at the tedious and lonely life in Europe emanates.
So when Jacob Elordi’s cadence as Elvis Presley, in all of his formidable coolness, stood tall in the frames of the film once more, it was clear that he wasn’t any different to the average man. The common reasoning for a much older man’s inclination toward a younger girl is always his ‘unwavering sorrow.’
Such sadness that men have, which, for some reason, can’t be filled by power or glory, makes them unable to think straight and wise. Thus, a girl like Priscilla—so demure and virginal—has reduced his devil-may-care persona to a mere cavalier, eager to impress Priscilla’s parents to take her home for friendship. A friendship, that, as The Guardian puts it, rendered Priscilla to be a catholic-school girl by day and a coquette at night.
Photo from Priscilla (2023)
Graceland was Priscilla’s convent. A nunnery of sorts where she voluntarily married herself to a life of little meaning. Her devotion was built on fragile glass that can easily be shattered by the guttural temperament Elvis succumbed himself with. A lot of the cuts in the film insinuate that it was better for her to be away from him, solemnly in solitude as she finishes –which proved to be a challenge– her school. Her days after her parents permitted her to be with him, were spent reading countless tabloids on Elvis’ romantic flings and rendezvous and getting giddy at a few seconds call by him when he’s busy recording. At some point, she was gifted a puppy as a distraction to keep her at bay because even her carnal needs were rejected.
Even after their marriage, the boringness of her lonely, secluded life didn’t stop getting boring. Her identity, which was sadly flat in the first place, was morphed to fit his gaudy branding; her iconic updo, thick eyeliner, and blue dresses, were all to appease Elvis’ healing. The notion of religion in the film didn’t have to try too hard to be noticed; the shunning of sex, strict dress codes, and bible reading clubs hosted by Elvis, were all elements in Priscilla’s life that her love, also inevitably transformed into. The film establishes that she was just a chaperon in his life, a little pretty trinket to keep him entertained.
Priscilla is a passive observer of her own life. Her daily affairs didn’t include anything else but Elvis. Graceland’s blanche beauty only made her insane as everyone worshipped the man and shunned the girl to ruins. Even right after the birth of their daughter, Lisa Marie, the extramarital affairs didn’t stop and only got worse. Still, all jealousy and mob wife attitudes wouldn’t last long as soon as Elvis gets physical and throw her luxury clothes, all bought by him, straight to her face. Instances of her speaking her mind would never happen again for as long as it hit Elvis’ ego. In a very strange yet straightforward way, their marriage embodies the Oedipus and Electra complexes. As Priscilla wrote:
“On other days, I was the stronger one, looking after him like a doting mother, making sure that he ate everything on his plate, took his vitamins, and didn’t miss any of his favorite TV shows.”
Their codependency in each other is an open view to the ideal yet abused dichotomous marriage roles that render them king and servant instead of equals. Priscilla was bound to a life of imminence, while Elvis transcended to a fame so divinely destined that it immortalized his legacy.
**Coppola’s formula **
Photo from Priscilla (2023)
Priscilla’s director, Sofia Coppola is one, if not, the patron saint of girlhood; and her directing Priscilla was like a heard prayer for the girls who have discovered her gorgeous lineup of hyper-white femininity movies. The Virgin Suicides (1999), Marie Antoinette (2006), and The Beguiled (2017) are just among her dreamy, picturesque movies that the bow and lace-wearing girls of today just gobble up like a messy Valentine’s cake. To see her vision on a topic that is so delicately hidden and romanticized is akin to justice’s call itself.
Coppola’s formula for presenting endings was the most different in Priscilla. She didn’t literally die nor have gone completely derailed, but her dolled identity, exclusive for Elvis, broke to pieces in the end. It was only then that she realized she lost her life for a man, and she wanted to live and bask in it now on her own. She started wearing prints, her hair loose and bouncing freely, and her eyes were bare of any makeup. It was an ego death, out of Elvis’ Graceland and into a life of her own accord.
It’s always this delicate, metamorphic portion of a woman’s life that Coppola laudes. Throughout the course of the film, we see subtle nods to her method; close-up shots of Priscilla’s face while the camera slowly pans away to the expanse of the architecture, lyrics are all intentional, just like how they played Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You as she drove away from Graceland and Frankie Avalon’s Venus when we first see Priscilla at the diner.
Coppola’s sculpture of the film is undoubtedly beautiful. Yet it is also twinned with the truth that it failed to go deep into the ugliness and insidious pedophilia that Elvis Presley was. Not everyone is thrilled to see the glorious performer banished, even their late daughter herself.
Thus, Priscilla’s tendency to be lackluster amid the debauched and lolita-esque identity of the film may very well be their intent. Her story is not a dashing performance of blinding lights but rather, a solemn isolation. It intends to make you feel edged, cocooned, and infantilized, as you have nowhere else to go but stick to what you know, and Priscilla doesn’t really know a lot—so there’s not much going on.
It’s akin to religion, and that is hard to explain except to just simply say it how it is—she grew up confusing grooming with godhood.
Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla wants you to know where her invocations come from—to celebrate her as she graced the scenes as her own person for the very first time.