Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 27th, 2023
Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023) 1½ out of 4 stars.
The most dramatically riveting aspect of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s surprisingly inert new film, the biopic Priscilla (based on Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon’s 1985 book Elvis and Me), is how much of a complete creep it paints the “King of Rock N’ Roll” to be. I may find the movie inexcusably flat and with a cipher as its protagonist, but I will never look at Elvis the same way again. So kudos to Coppola (On the Rocks) for that.
The big mystery, throughout, remains the question of why Priscilla adopts such an episodic approach to the narrative, one short scene following the next, separated by gentle fades to black. Perhaps this aesthetic—along with Coppola’s usual fine production design—is meant to reinforce the dreamlike reverie of 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu when she first meets Elvis Presley in Germany in 1959. He’s one of the most famous men in the world, and she’s just a kid, living out a fantasy.
At that time, Elvis was completing his military service, and Priscilla’s stepdad, a U.S. Air Force officer, had just been transferred to a German base, bringing the family with him. We first see the teen Priscilla in a diner, lonely and adrift, waiting for something—anything—to happen to her. So maybe we can forgive the movie’s initial gauzy approach.
But for how long? In the lead role, Cailee Spaeny (How It Ends) brings a strong emotional depth to the character, but she is hampered by the utter one-dimensionality of the script. Similarly, Jacob Elordi (Saltburn) makes an excellent Elvis, and the extreme height difference between him and Spaeny serves to emphasize the skewed power dynamic he lords over her until their eventual divorce. She looks even younger than their 10-year gap would make her.
Beyond Elvis’ pedophilic tendencies, he is also a classic controlling, gaslighting, and abusive man, even before the drugs begin to take over. In (short) scene after (short) scene, Coppola drives home the vision of a man-child who has no sense of self, and therefore no ability to truly love his child-bride (to be fair, they did not actually marry until 1967, when she was almost 22). And though the fact of whether or not the couple ever had sex while Priscilla was still a minor is left up to viewer interpretation, their many nights in bed together should properly fill the spectator with revulsion (what were her parents thinking?).
But what of Priscilla, herself? Who is she and what does she want? Anyone who was alive and watching movies in the 1980s remembers her as a lively presence in the Naked Gun films. True, she was in her 40s by then and therefore more self-assured, but there is never any sense, here, of how the vague personality on screen could turn into this later person. It could be by design, to show how oppressed young Priscilla was, but if so, it hardly makes for engaging cinema.