‘Priscilla’ Review: Sofia Coppola’s Quietly Affecting Portrait of Priscilla Presley’s Years With Elvis

For much of Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s subdued but stirring repositioning of the Elvis myth from the perspective of the woman who spent 14 years as his girlfriend and wife, there’s a sense of an emotionally immature man regularly taking a doll out of its box to play romance or dress-up or even kink one night when they drop acid. But he remains determined always to return her to her original packaging, in this case that of an unworldly 9th grade schoolgirl.

The beauty of this probing study of a lonely private world in the glare of the public eye is that while it appears on the surface to show a protagonist without agency, manipulated and compartmentalized since her teens, the Priscilla Presley portrayed here with moving emotional transparency by Cailee Spaeny is a self-possessed woman always attuned to her needs, who emerges from intoxication to begin a long, painful but ultimately decisive process of reassessment.

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Few filmmakers are as thematically cohesive or as perceptive in their intimate attention to the inner lives and complex identities of young women as Coppola, making it tough to think of a director better equipped to guide us through this story, familiar in its contours but revelatory in this fresh point of view.

The primary source was Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, written with Sandra Harmon, but there are few if any suggestions of the usual constraints of an officially sanctioned version. (The subject also is credited as an executive producer.)

Coppola has been respectful, stepping delicately around the potentially sensitive subject of the couple’s age difference — they met and began a protracted courtship when Priscilla was 14 and Elvis 24 — but the director appears to have been free to mold the material to her own thematic interests and stylistic signatures.

The closest title in Coppola’s filmography to Priscilla might seem to be her previous foray into biographical drama, Marie Antoinette. But although there are a few small elements in common — a boldly anachronistic music choice here and there; a fascination with the decorative trappings of femininity — the new movie feels closer to the director’s 1999 feature debut, The Virgin Suicides.

The dreamlike veil that hung over that film is echoed in the feeling here of experience pulled from memory, with its deep pools of tenderness, sorrow and regret, and there are similarities in the direct access to the burgeoning desires, the swoony reveries and the rebellious drives of teenage womanhood.

The title sequence is pure Sofia Coppola, with every detail of Priscilla’s costuming to play the envied role of girlfriend to Elvis (Jacob Elordi) captured in loving detail by Philippe Le Sourd’s camera to the strains of The Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” — bare feet with red painted toenails on pink shag carpet; industrial strength eyeliner being plastered on; the careful application of spidery false eyelashes; a gentle misting of Aqua Net. The director has always understood the evocative power of images and sounds to put us in a very specific world.

The film captures the giddy sensation of what it was like to go from being a bored Army brat, sipping coke at the diner counter of a U.S. Air Base in 1959 West Germany, to become the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s chosen one, ushered into the halls of Graceland. Even more so, the master bedroom, a shock of gaudy bad-taste bordello style.

Spaeny has no trouble passing for a teenager in those early scenes while Elvis was serving in Germany. Priscilla seems to be pinching herself as she sits demurely on a sofa watching him entertain his party guests with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” at the piano. She floats down the corridors at school and daydreams through class. While her parents (Dagmara Dominczyk and Ari Cohen) try to halt the romance before it gets started, Priscilla’s willfulness wears them down, as does Elvis’ old-fashioned Southern courtesy when they insist he come pick her up himself for dates.

Some audiences no doubt will bristle at a 14-year-old girl in a sexually adjacent situation. But Coppola handles that aspect nonjudgmentally, instead focusing on how Elvis uses his sadness over his recently deceased mother and his longing for home to convince Priscilla that they’re kindred spirits. Their first kiss is a rhapsodic thrill set to “Crimson and Clover,” but actual sex doesn’t come into it until much later, even after Priscilla starts trying to instigate it.

More than other portraits of Elvis, this one paints him as sexually dysfunctional, with a Madonna complex that makes him keep putting on the brakes when things risk “getting out of hand,” insisting that he’ll decide when it’s the right time.

Even while Priscilla’s still in school, he’s giving her uppers to get through her classes and downers to get to sleep. When he takes her to Vegas, she gets her first taste of how controlling he can be, shooting down her wardrobe choices in favor of dresses he chooses and telling her to dye her hair black and use more eye makeup. During a visit back to Germany, her folks are startled to greet their 17-year-old daughter at the airport with a disheveled bouffant and smudged mascara. By that point, they know they’ve lost her.

Around the same time, Priscilla starts realizing how much time she’ll spend alone reading fan magazine accounts of film-shoot romances that Elvis denies, while her behavior is policed by his father Vernon (Tim Post). The latter’s partner Dee (Stephanie Moore) tells her sharply that she needs to stop making a public display of herself when she’s sitting on the lawn playing with the poodle Elvis gave her, in view of fans behind the Graceland gates.

Long before the prying lenses of paparazzi and social media made such circumspection standard practice for celebrities, Priscilla is made to feel uncomfortable in the bubble. Spaeny stealthily dials up the melancholy of her increasing imprisonment, even as Priscilla remains caught up in the fairy tale of being American pop royalty living a life of romantic bliss.

Coppola suggests that she was always treated as an outsider and that Elvis was an overgrown boy who often preferred to goof off with his buddies than spend time with her. When she starts displaying more backbone and telling him that she needs to feel desired, he seems too stunned by a woman speaking up for herself in that way to take her seriously. Instead, he infantilizes his “little one,” telling her, “Be a good girl.”

Coming just over a year after Austin Butler put a memorable stamp on the role in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Elordi finds his own way into the character, pouring seductive charm and undeniable magnetism into the sad eyes and sleepy speech patterns. But he never shies away from the more off-putting traits — the fits of pique, the petulance, the evasiveness and dishonesty.

He consistently blocks her set visits when he’s in production on a movie or sends her home early on the rare occasions she does get to join him. Her confinement at Graceland chafes more and more, with Vernon barking at her like she’s just another member of the entourage or staff. When they finally do get married, things improve only briefly, and the birth of their daughter, Lisa Marie, makes him a proud father, but he refuses to touch Priscilla for months afterwards: “I just don’t want to hurt you, baby.”

There are amusing moments suggesting the extent to which Priscilla is playing a part, either by requirement or choice, like her applying eyelashes and teasing up her hair as she’s going into labor. But theirs is a marriage that’s never on equal terms, and Spaeny’s performance becomes increasingly moving once Priscilla’s rose-colored glasses are permanently off and her isolation is compounded.

At a time when most such epiphanies in movies come with a Big Important Self-Worth Speech like the one satirized in Barbie, Coppola deserves credit for making Priscilla’s awakening and steadily building resolve a subtle process. Some may find this underpowered and want more fireworks from the movie. But Coppola has always been a filmmaker who coaxes out feelings rather than blasts them with emphatic declarations, and the nuanced restraint of her writing and direction here are very much points in Priscilla’s favor.

The film’s poignancy is that of a young woman overwhelmed — some might say bamboozled — into a life that is never quite real, stepping back and taking control by walking away, even though she still loves her messed-up husband.

The movie’s textures, both visually and in terms of mood, are sumptuous. Le Sourd’s clear-eyed yet somehow simultaneously hazy camerawork savors the soft pastels and gold accents of Tamara Deverell’s richly detailed period production design and Stacey Battet’s stylish costumes. The latter cover the late ‘50s through to the early ‘70s, often flirting with kitsch but never to a distracting degree. Even some of Elvis’ more iconic outfits, like the black leather suit or white bellbottom jumpsuit with the half cape, seem reinterpreted.

Music by French synth-pop band Phoenix fits with Coppola’s firm command of mood in ways that recall the Air soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, further enhanced by a multitude of sharp song choices. The use of Dolly Parton’s original “I Will Always Love You” as Priscilla makes her exit is beautiful.

The minimal screen time given to Priscilla in Lurhmann’s Elvis was not unusual by the standards of previous biographical treatments. Coppola flips the balance here to an extent that risks rubbing hardcore Elvis fans the wrong way, putting the performer in a less-than-flattering though never unfair light. But it elegantly upgrades a key player in the Elvis legend from the sidelines, and anyone attuned to Coppola’s distinctive wavelengths will find it a pleasurably emotional experience.

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