Priscilla Review: Just Another Bored Girl

Sofia Coppola examines the emptiness behind the glamour

How does one make an Elvis movie without Elvis music? That’s a fair question, but not the right one to ask when it comes to Priscilla. As the title suggests, this one’s about Priscilla Presley. Elvis already had his turn, many times. Instead, writer/director Sofia Coppola goes inside Graceland anew to deconstruct the fantasy lives of the rich and famous. This refreshingly Tom Hanks-free movie explores a woman whose life’s largely been defined by her ex-husband. Priscilla grants its titular character an inner life and meaning. And frankly, she doesn’t seem especially interested in Elvis’s music—or Coppola simply doesn’t seem keen to use it to define Priscilla.

Priscilla perfectly enters the headspace of a young girl who’s in far over her head. And that’s important when it comes to Priscilla Beaulieu: she’s only 14 years old when she met 24-year-old Elvis Presley. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny gives a genuinely impressive breakout performance playing Priscilla from her innocent teen years to the newfound strength she discovers while leaving Elvis in 1972. The film offers something of a cradle-to-grave style take on their relationship, as Coppola frames the story from their first meeting to the day they split.

The film sees Priscilla, just a young air force brat, swoon over Elvis (Jacob Elordi) when a friend invites her to Presley’s party. The invitation takes some convincing, but Priscilla’s mom (Dagmara Dominczyk) and step-father (Ari Cohen) reluctantly agree. Elvis and Priscilla soon have something of a May-December romance. She’s giddy like a schoolgirl–well, because she is one–and Coppola accentuates the ick factor of the jailbait romance without laying it on thick.

Captain and Mrs. Beaulieu express concerns over Elvis’s intentions and Priscilla’s infatuation with him. Especially with all those gossip magazine stories about Elvis and Nancy Sinatra, they know their girl’s heart will be broken.

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Audience know how the story went, though. Letters come and go between the couple as Elvis watches the clock and waits for it to strike Priscilla’s marrying age. Their 1967 marriage (she was nearly 22) appears as a brisk, sort-of-happy whirlwind in Coppola’s film. The honeymoon ends quickly, though, once Priscilla lands in Graceland. Soon enough, she’s just another bored and disillusioned young woman, like so many a character to lead a Sofia Coppola movie.

Priscilla really isn’t much different from Coppola’s Somewhere, Lost in Translation, or Marie-Antoinette. The portrait is another of a frustrated women trapped by boredom. Priscilla lounges around the elegant mansion. She isn’t allowed to speak with the wives of the men in Elvis’s entourage. She can’t lunch with his secretaries. All she can do is mope by the pool, play with her dog, pop some pills, and wait for Elvis. When Elvis comes home, though, he hardly merits the wait. His mercurial drug-fuelled energy treats Priscilla like his emotional support dog. At no point in the film does Elvis treat his wife as a person worthy of respect.

Coppola adapts Presley’s biography Elvis and Me and her take on Priscilla’s life reflects the tumultuousness of their marriage while demystifying the Elvis persona. Played by a miscast Jacob Elordi, this Elvis is unexpectedly bland. He’s pretty, but there’s nothing to him. Absent from Elordi’s performance is the swagger, screen presence, and raw sexual magnetism that made Austin Butler’s Elvis so electric in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic last year. Elordi’s Elvis, while avoiding the god-like status that fans ascribe to the rocker, leaves one wondering what Priscilla even sees in him. He’s a hot drug-fuelled mess and little more, although Coppola reminds us that Elvis himself was practically a boy when he and Priscilla met. Just watch him lip sync the words of Humphrey Bogart when they take in a movie together. He’s the one with dreams of stardom even though he’s the biggest headliner on the planet.

As Priscilla wafts through Graceland, pops pills, and struggles to gather her agency, though, Priscilla ultimately resembles a really beautiful watch commercial. This is a gorgeous portrait of people looking fabulous. The vacuum has a purpose, though, as tedious as it might be. Shot exquisitely by Philippe Le Sourd and decked out with note-perfect tailoring by production designer Tamara Deverell and costume designer Stacey Battat, Priscilla has the sheen of a very expensive magazine spread. Coppola harnesses the emptiness of this life as Priscilla awakens to the reality that the glossy veneer of celebrity isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. The film lets audiences experience the explosion of rock and roll from the perspective of a young girl who was forced to sit at the sidelines of a cultural revolution. It’s glamorous, but it isn’t pretty.

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The film gives Priscilla Presley her own mark on the Elvis story, though, as Coppola defines her on her own terms. Any needle drops are anachronistic Phoenix tunes that Priscilla might have bopped to with the girls from The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antoinette in another life. If an Elvis song appears, Coppola uses a cover by someone else. Most sweetly, though, she ends the film with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which Elvis sang to Priscilla upon their split. Elvis never got to record that song, though. Whether it or Priscilla was the one that got away, however, is a secret that he only knows.

Priscilla opens in theatres Nov. 3.



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