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‘Priscilla’ Review: Sofia Coppola’s Latest Portrait of Female Identity


Priscilla
Image courtesy of Getty / BFI London Film Festival

Sofia Coppola’s latest film could be her most stylish, sensitive, and seductive portrait of womanhood yet. Coppola proves time and time again her ability to capture a young woman’s world through the bars of a gilded cage, one of both decadent privilege and aching loneliness. Coppola’s gift, in depicting young women who possess everything and nothing at all, is exemplified in Priscilla (2023). Based on Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, Coppola’s intimate portrayal follows the teenager’s relationship with the king of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley. Without the garish glitz and glamour of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022), Priscilla reveals the unspoken truths behind the iconic couple, from a perspective of feminine entrapment and escape. Coppola traces her titular female character’s development from girl to woman, as Priscilla attempts to find her identity within a world dominated by men, from the confines of the kitschy gates of Graceland.


Priscilla is unmistakably a Coppola creation from its opening shot, in which bare feet with coral pedicured toes tread across a fluffy pink carpet. We sink deeper into the soft envelopment of delicately feminine and frilly aesthetics. As expected, Coppola’s Priscilla is a delectable feast for the eyes. The Ramones’ ‘Baby, I Love You’ chimes us into the film’s title card, displayed over blue silk sheets, kicking off a compilation of 1960s doo-wop, 2000s electronica, and 1970s gospel. Typical of Coppola’s auteurism, her anachronistic soundtrack provides a modern lens to the fairytale romance of Priscilla’s memoir. Played by the mesmerising Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla is introduced via a series of close-ups, of dramatic winged eyeliner, lustrous fake lashes, lipstick, hairspray, and stilettos. Coppola’s decision to introduce Priscilla through her signature symbols of beauty, alongside the decorations of Graceland’s interior, establishes her status as an adornment of Elvis’ iconography. What Coppola does in the rest of her film is subvert this, challenging preconceptions of Priscilla’s image with her sole perspective. 


Spaeny’s performance earned her Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, rightly deserved, as she is as convincing a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl as she is a mother and wife in her late twenties. Spaeny’s Priscilla is gentle, trusting, and utterly infatuated with Jacob Elordi’s Elvis. Just as handsome and charismatic as the rock ’n’ roll heartthrob, Elordi excels in portraying a darker, more complex, and more dangerous edge to Elvis’ character. The stark height difference alone between Spaeny and Elordi amplifies their age difference, with Coppola’s intentional use of scale emphasising the physical and emotional power imbalance of their relationship. Aligned with Priscilla, the audience is seduced, ignored, and manipulated under the authority of Elvis, experiencing the inner workings of a co-dependent relationship turned toxic marriage. 


The film begins on a US Army Base in 1959 West Germany, where Priscilla Beaulieu sits at a diner and sips Coca-Cola from a straw, accompanied by Frankie Avalon’s ‘Venus’. It is here that Priscilla is ‘discovered’ by a military man and friend of Elvis, who asks, “You like Elvis Presley?”, to which she smirks, “Who doesn’t?”. Coppola constantly emphasises Priscilla’s youth, not only through her buttoned shirt and pastel crew cardigan but also through her parents’ authority and discipline. With the reassurance of the soldier’s supervision, Priscilla’s parents allow her to accept the invitation to one of Elvis’ parties.


Coppola never explicitly condemns Elvis as a groomer and Priscilla as the victim, expressing her desire not to portray Elvis as a villain but to explore the intricacies of their relationship from Priscilla’s perspective. Coppola also reiterates Elvis’ refusal to have sex with Priscilla until their wedding night, when she is twenty-one, a point that Priscilla has notoriously defended. Nonetheless, Elvis’ fetishisation of her intact virginity is evident: “Promise me you’ll stay the way you are now?”. From their initial meeting in which Elvis tells Priscilla, “You’re just a baby!”, to his possessive control over her appearance, “Black hair and more eye makeup”, Elvis’ abusive treatment of Priscilla is clear. 


Priscilla remains completely besotted with the rock ’n’ roll star, much disillusioned with high school, now living the teenage fangirl dream. The two spend long nights talking, and kissing, with Elvis confiding in the teenager about his late mother and homesickness. When Priscilla is eventually summoned to Graceland, the audience is shocked as the sixteen-year-old wakes from a two-day drug-induced stupor, at the hands of Elvis’ pills. In a moment of true lovesick adolescence, Priscilla returns to West Germany with mascara streaming down her cheeks. Soon, when the teenager succumbs to Elvis’ dreamy lifestyle, a relenting Mr and Mrs Beaulieu allow Priscilla to move into Graceland permanently. 


Coppola intersperses Priscilla’s time at Graceland with occasional bouts of euphoria, in boudoir polaroid shoots accompanied by Santo & Johnny’s ‘Sleep Walk’, roller-rink dates, pool parties, and pistols to match every outfit. However, Priscilla’s temporary happiness is undercut by Elvis’ violent outbursts of aggression, particularly when he throws a chair at her. First and foremost, Priscilla is haunted by the overwhelming isolation of Graceland’s echoing rooms, left empty as Elvis travels from movie set to music stage, engaging in various affairs. As opposed to focusing on the rock star’s public sphere, Coppola’s camera remains behind the closed gates of Graceland, where Priscilla’s independence and freedom are lost. We share her abandonment, anxiety, and anger, all the while she falls pregnant with their daughter Lisa-Marie. 


Elvis’ obsession with moulding Priscilla into the ideal woman manifests within her glamour even during labour, framed carefully applying fake lashes and entering the hospital wearing knee-high boots. Coppola masterfully captures the crumbling of their marriage soon after Priscilla gives birth, as Elvis deteriorates further into a void of drug addiction in Vegas. The palette shifts entirely, from sugary pastels to neutral tones, and Priscilla’s exterior reflects her changing interior. Taking up karate lessons and having dinner parties with friends, Priscilla’s hair returns to its natural mousy brown, styled in loose waves, and her eye makeup fades. “You’re losing me to a life of my own”, Priscilla proclaims as she parts from Elvis, leaving behind her fourteen-year relationship not due to a lack of love, but due to a lack of identity. 


In the end, Priscilla gives no attention to the much-publicised life and death of Elvis post-divorce. Instead, we witness the courage and integrity of a woman leaving behind everything she knows. Priscilla drives through the gates of Graceland, leaving behind a life of loneliness, abuse, and vulnerability, to the moving heartache of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’. We embark on a long journey with Priscilla, from the nervous child sitting in the back seat entirely at the will of men, to the woman sitting in the driving seat of her new life. Coppola’s film succeeds in protecting Priscilla’s love for Elvis, which her memoir maintains never declined, whilst simultaneously highlighting the importance of female autonomy and selfhood. Priscilla drives away from Graceland, finally a bird freed from its cage, as a woman on her own terms.

 

Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor

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