Raised in tow of a military stepfather, 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu lives in a West German US Air Force base when we meet her in 1959––the year she meets Elvis. It happens through means befitting a ninth-grader, less so a man in his mid-20s. You know the method, but you probably haven’t used it since grade school. That’s right: the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, five years into stardom, enlists a buddy to ask her out on his behalf. Flattered, stunned, and barely allowed to attend, she goes, the last choice she’ll ever make pre-Elvis.
But if there’s one thing Sofia Coppola’s breezy, crushing biopic wants us to remember, it’s that there was a post-Elvis. Coppola doesn’t depict those years, but the storied 14-year stretch “with” him emphasizes Priscilla’s emancipation. It provides all the context we need to appreciate the autonomy of the 50-year period that must’ve followed, about which we know so little––other than its freedom from the King.
We only witness Priscilla’s life between 14 to 28, but it more suggests 14 to 58. Priscilla looks so much older by the end, despite hardly aging over the course of Priscilla. The years don’t pile up in the lines on her face but the evolving way she conceals herself while incurring more damage, a maturing mask of primer, concealer, bronzer, blush, and shadow creating an epic sense of scale (thanks to Jo-Ann MacNeil’s remarkable makeup design).
Cailee Spaeny’s Priscilla is uncannily her own––her casting as a relative unknown is proof of Coppola’s impeccable taste in all elements of craft; no doubt she had to fight against every iteration of executive dream casting––but the writer-director also imbues her lead with a deep cinematic heritage of troubled girls and women.
When Priscilla finally arrives at Graceland we spend a few shots in vacuous suburban silence, watching her try out the furniture uneventfully à la Safe’s Carol. Every piece is pristine. She’s giddy. But when alone, all there is to do is sit on another piece of furniture, an exercise that quickly loses its luster. It’s as if the Louvre gave you permission to touch the art––a sudden burst of excitement followed by the realization that looking at it is the only thing worth doing.
She even gets her Elle Woods moment: an Elvis party rages outside her door while she studies for a high school exam, desperately trying to shake the urge to join. Close to home, there’s also the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides and the rest of Coppola’s protagonists, save the Bling Ring gang. The list of reflecting characters would be long, so the last I’ll mention, and the most pervasive until Priscilla hits her 20s, is Lolita––Priscilla’s budding charm and vitality is always subject to an older man in crisis.
Coppola’s Elvis isn’t evil, but he definitely sucks. In Priscilla, this King of Rock is as dumb (and attentive) as one. Jacob Elordi is the counter-Elvis, a depiction that inspires anything but empathy or appreciation for the icon. If Austin Butler is the abused, Elordi is the abuser––Priscilla’s very own Colonel Tom Parker. He’s overwhelmingly vapid, inconsiderate, self-centered: a pea-brained jock-type whose whispered (un)sweet-somethings point directly to his romantic insecurities. (“When I call, I need you to be there.”)
He never says “I miss you” back or offers reassurance when she asks about another publicly confirmed affair. He blatantly hits on women in front of her, in one case even while he’s leading a Bible study for no more than 15 people––Priscilla among them––on denying the flesh. He makes her promise not to change and disguises the territorial plea as proper romance. He introduces her to uppers to stay awake in class after long nights partying and downers to chill her out when she wants him but he’s not feeling it (this is every time). It doesn’t matter to him if a barbiturate knocks her unconscious for a couple days, or that she doesn’t get to sleep in until 4 p.m., when Priscilla wakes him up with breakfast in bed after getting home from school.
He refuses to have sex with her until they get married, but waits eight years to propose and doesn’t wait to sleep with his Hollywood co-stars. In his stupidity he claims his prudence is about keeping their love sacred. So in effect Coppola makes the bedroom a sacred place, a Temple of Rejection. When they finally do have sex, we never see or hear it; we learn through Priscilla’s pregnancy, during which Elvis conveniently decides they should take a break.
That’s not to say Elvis doesn’t have his moments, but they usually come with an undisclosed fine print. He says, “Come live with me, baby” while failing to mention that she can’t have anyone over or go anywhere without him. Oh, also: he’s going to be gone for a while. He says, “Be my girl” and leaves out “if you’re cool with me brazenly cheating and lying about it.” Spoiler: she isn’t.
In his hilarious yogi phase, he epitomizes Armchair Philosopher the way a Righteous Gemstone would. It comes later in the film, and Coppola uses Elvis’s established density to draw out belly laughs––“This is never going to work if you don’t share my interest in philosophies, baby,” he sighs obliviously––channeling the Walk Hard baked into every music biopic. For the record, Dewey Cox’s karate-chopping Jack White Elvis is much closer to Elordi than Butler on the Elvis Portrayals Spectrum.
Coppola shows us some good times, too. In fact, such good times that you get butterflies fluttering in your stomach and your heart starting to swoon. Not necessarily over Elvis but over the newness of it all, the frontier of exploration and experience that would be life alongside any of the world’s most beloved stars. There’s even an acid trip with a decadent cacophony of sitars and chimes (here’s to you, Dewey).
It might seem off to talk so much about Elvis while reviewing a movie that aims to finally shirk his perspective. But that’s the nature of Coppola’s bitter pill: he was larger-than-life while she was barely living. In her tenure with the King she was caged, kept like a trophy, a shell of a person urgently trying to discover what was inside. That’s why so much of Spaeny’s perfect performance is spent in stillness––stunned, disappointed, and above all patient, Elvis’s charismatic confidence leaping off the screen next to Priscilla’s hushed innocence. But it’s never louder than her calm.
She’s a kid when they meet––in maturity, so was he––so they do kid things (minus the drugs). Roller-rink and bumper-car and golf-cart shenanigans give off teenage romance, as does the constant presence of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’ (at least in this case) very obnoxious buddies. But Priscilla wasn’t a kid for long, and most of that feigned childhood took place in what seems to be one of the only (at least partially) happy phases of their fated romance. To their credit, the couple can chill harder than anyone else, though that’s just an indictment of how thin and easy that connection is––the basis for a good time, not a life partnership.
The dullness of her world without him, however, is palpable thanks to Philippe Le Sourd’s moody cinematography. He and Coppola have built a rapport through her last three features, but it turns out they were just stretching on the first two. Where The Beguiled and On the Rocks stuck to one particular look, Priscilla evokes at least a hundred, each set a thoughtfully designed, lit, and framed moodscape that does so much of the explaining (and feeling) where an incredibly subtle screenplay chooses not to.
There’s no big screaming match in Priscilla, no takedowns, no zingers. It’s a refreshing and unexpected choice for a movie that ends in divorce. A child of her father, Coppola has a sixth sense for the language of cinema, for communicating complex themes effectively without being heavy-handed or coercive. Take, for instance, the Vegas phase. It seems like a unwieldy period to cover, but she tells us everything we need to know in two shots, the weight of a feature within them: Elvis at rock-bottom in his legendary Vegas penthouse, a cave-like darkness swallowing him and hellish neon glow pulsing through the windows as if he’s trapped inside a lit cigarette, each drag from the giant demon smoking it a soul-sucking experience; then Priscilla in Los Angeles, in the sun, meeting new people, laughing, smiling, open––as simple (and rewarding) as a great conversation.
Per the Coppola standard, the soundtrack is 2023’s best so far and Phoenix’s score (led by husband Thomas Mars; Coppola likes rock stars too) fills gaps nicely. In a legally necessary feat, Coppola didn’t include any Elvis music (the estate said no). The closest she comes is “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the Strauss piece best known for theming 2001: A Space Odyssey and Elvis’s Vegas introductions.
The soundtrack, however, doesn’t suffer a bit. Actually––saying this as someone who loves Elvis music––the film is better for it. It keeps us in Priscilla’s world and removes the temptation to give Elvis a handout triggered by one of his disarming melodies. Needle drop after needle drop submerges us in Priscilla’s emotion, be it a listless depression or a floating euphoria.
A deliriously hopeful “Crimson and Clover” plays over her walk through the locker-lined school hall the morning after Elvis takes her on a date, Lux Lisbon and Trip Fontaine echoing out. Dreamy, lazy lap steels take over amid the passage of time, bending every which way in period-appropriate surf instrumental classics, e.g. Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” and Speedy West’s “Rippling Waters.” When Spectrum’s “How You Satisfy Me” (the crunchy, lo-fi song from the teaser) finally hits, it suggests a revelation. And the final Dolly Parton track, which I’ll leave a mystery, plays so harmoniously over the final minutes that you hope it never stops.
At the end of the day, Priscilla’s multifaceted brilliance comes back around to Coppola’s immaculate sense of restraint in both screenwriting and direction. Take the title card: prim white cursive lays neatly over steely satin curtains whose cornflower blue bares a tinge of melancholy and regret, even as it’s just white words over a curtain. Anyone can do that, but would they think of it? Or––more importantly––believe in it enough to fight for its thematic symmetry in the face of flashier, emptier options?
Coppola carries a conviction to find substance in simplicity without abandoning creativity (quite the opposite, actually), and her films are better for it––the light, the set, the look, the props, the frames, the costumes, the characters, the story. All of it.
Without hesitation, Priscilla joins the ranks of two important clubs: Coppola’s Filmography of Drifting Girls and Coppola’s Best Films––alongside fellow drifting-girl classics The Virgin Suicides, Somewhere, and Lost in Translation. There’s hanging in the air a third membership for the Most Exclusive Movie Club, if you catch my drift, but we’ll need to wait a decade or two to see how Priscilla ages. Only time can make those admissions.
Priscilla premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will open on October 27.