Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” is a beautiful documentation but falls short of high expectations.
Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ is Glitzy and Gut-wrenching
Content warning: Abuse
One can see why the Elvis estate wasn’t too happy with “Priscilla.”
In her Sept. 4 film, director and writer Sofia Coppola draws on Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me,” which explores their turbulent — if not wholly abusive — relationship. Through the perspective of Priscilla, Elvis Presley’s wife and a voice often forgotten in his biographies, Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” “Virgin Suicides”) recreates the stifling world of Graceland. The film is glamorous and evocative — but frequently loses itself and its central purpose.
The film begins in 1959 when Priscilla (Cailee Spaeney) is invited to a party where musical icon Elvis (Jacob Elordi) will be. As a 14-year-old Elvis fan struggling with the emotional effects of having just moved to a U.S. Army base in Germany, Priscilla begs her parents to let her go.
The two meet and hit it off — as much as a 24-year-old adult man and 14-year-old schoolgirl can “hit it off.” The two date until Elvis leaves Germany for Hollywood, promising to keep in touch but leaving Priscilla with tabloid rumors of his affair with Nancy Sinatra.
As their relationship continues to deepen, Priscilla moves to Memphis from Germany to be with Elvis and finish high school. He takes pictures with the nuns at her high school graduation and gifts her a bright red car, oblivious to the strangeness of the situation.
The film is woven together from a series of vignettes but sequentially, the film seems to lack intention. Scenes happen in succession but are loosely connected, held together by the weak narrative threads of the evolving relationship between Priscilla and Elvis and the escalation of Elvis’ abuse.
Part-way through the movie, Elvis gets caught up in the kinds of New Wave spirituality that seemed to dominate the Bethlehems Joan Didion was slouching towards. He begins to read books on numerology and similar topics, inspiring the ire of his Christian surroundings.
Then, he and Priscilla take LSD. It feels disconnected and vague in the wider scope of the plot — a beautiful dream sequence in the middle of an otherwise firmly real film.
The major hurdle many biopics struggle with is that people’s lives aren’t governed by a clean, concise plot structure. So, does the biopic director choose to create a plot out of the lives of their subjects and possibly misrepresent the importance of certain events, or do they portray things exactly as they were? Director or documentarian?
Coppola opts for the latter approach, creating windows into the real events of the real lives of these very real people, while struggling to create a fiction-esque narrative. Things just happen in “Priscilla” — as they do in real life.
The film depicts a build up of abuse, emotional manipulation and isolation causing Priscilla to end her marriage with Elvis. Watching their interactions play out on screen is suffocating, leaving the audience trapped with calls for it all to just stop.
The dialogue, however, struggles to come across as realistic in any sense. Whether the fault of Coppola or the actors, it feels stilted and strained.
At some moments, it feels a bit like watching a scripted group project in a language class. Elordi is selling the role but it doesn’t quite sit right. While Spaeney is trying her best, she can’t seem to push past the unnatural dialogue.
Spaeney is doing what she can with what she’s given, which isn’t much in terms of dialogue. Priscilla rarely speaks — and when she does, it comes across as flat and uninterested.
It might be her trying to pretend to be a child, putting a kind of unnatural naïveté in her voice, but it never quite projects that way.
Most of the lines are delivered in a half-whisper, the quiet tone of the film broken only by brief shouting between Elvis and Priscilla.
Elordi’s (“Euphoria,” “The Kissing Booth”) Elvis is thankfully non-method, a sharp departure from the act Austin Butler put on for the better part of three years during “Elvis.” The performance is still fundamentally absurd — it’s difficult to play Elvis as anything but a languid court jester.
Elvis is a character unto himself. Any attempts to capture that character tend to drift into the realm of caricature, despite many actors’ best efforts. He was a farce of a man, and it’s no shock any attempts to recreate his persona naturally elicit that ludicrous nature.
What the dialogue and plot fail to convey, the set and costuming often make up for. Spaeney sits stiffly on cream-white couches that don’t bend under her weight and tip-toes through hallways that seem to swallow her whole.
Priscilla’s clothes and makeup never fit her face or her body, seemingly meant for someone taller and older than her. She looks as though she’s dressed in the same manner a child might dress a Barbie — clothes true to someone else but never quite fitting.
Her mannerisms are hauntingly childlike throughout most of the movie — clumsy and uncertain. She sits on the floor and paints her toes next to her math homework, a child forced to take on the life of an adult in service of something she doesn’t fully understand.
Coppola has a history of directing and beautifully showcasing the stories of women under the thumb of those around them, specifically men — shown most in “The Virgin Suicides.” She is an obvious choice for the directorship role.
But those high expectations might have been too high. “Priscilla” is still a beautiful film, gorgeous and sickening throughout — but it doesn’t quite meet the standards of its makers.
“Priscilla” is in theaters now.
Featured image courtesy of A24