Film Review: “Priscilla” — Tender, Treacherous Youth
By Peg Aloi
The film beautifully captures a dreamy-nightmare aesthetic, suggesting that Priscilla’s life with Elvis was turbulent roller coaster of romantic highs and materialistic hollowness.
Priscilla, directed by Sofia Coppola. Currently screening at theaters throughout New England.
Sofia Coppola’s distinctive filmmaking career has often focused on telling stories about young women who are living lives of fairy tale glamour that turn out to be full of peril. Consider the privileged but isolated teenage girls in The Virgin Suicides; Scarlett Johansson as a lonely film director’s wife (modeled on Coppola herself) living in Japan in Lost in Translation; Kirsten Dunst as the iconic but doomed Marie Antoniette; even the selfish teens blithely committing crimes in the tragicomic The Bling Ring. Priscilla Presley, an ordinary teenage girl, started dating Elvis when she was only 14 years old, while she was still attending a private Catholic school. Fresh out of the army, Elvis (played with brooding charm by Jacob Elordi) is an ambitious, natural-born performer whose meteoric early career created an icon, particularly to teenagers who know little of the world. The film chronicles Priscilla’s transformation from a guileless teen into a mature woman: she learns some unpleasant truths, her education driven partly by girlish fascination, but mostly by all-consuming love.
Like Coppola’s other French princess, Marie, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny of The Craft: Legacy and Mare of Easttown in an incandescent performance) is a young girl who is suddenly thrust into an otherworldly existence. Living in a beautiful palace (Graceland), worshiped by obsessed fans who envy her romantic liaison with the world’s most famous sex symbol, Priscilla initially takes to this life of utter decadence like a duck to water. Young and unsophisticated, she lets her husband shape her personae: he advises her on everything from how to style her hair and make-up to who her friends should be. The production design features flawless depictions of Priscilla’s lush surroundings: pastel-colored beauty parlors, sleek luxury cars, and colorful racks of bespoke dresses tailored for her approval (though Elvis seemed to make the final decisions on what she wore). Despite her somewhat controlling husband, Priscilla seems to enjoy her ascent to pop culture royalty.
But the privilege and pleasure, the incendiary rise to wealth and celebrity status, came at a steep price (most viewers will know that Elvis died at a very young 42). The fast life of a rock-and-roll star, who later became a Hollywood ‘It’ Boy starring in a succession of films built around his musical numbers and his raw sex appeal, was bedeviled by tabloid sensationalism and nightly bouts of booze and drugs. Elvis was rumored to have extramarital affairs with glamorous co-stars, such as Ann-Margret. Priscilla only gingerly explores what this must have been like for Elvis’s wife. How did she tolerate his narcissistic tendency to love-bomb her one minute while cruelly withholding intimacy the next? Nor does the narrative delve very deeply into what contemporary audiences would consider the predatory behavior of a grown man marrying a teenager eleven years his junior, though Priscilla insisted in the memoir (which inspired the film) that she was a virgin until she married Elvis at 21. Times have changed, obviously, and the often shocking social mores of the film’s setting are depicted with an authentic neutrality — neither critique nor sugar-coating.
Visually, however, Coppola’s trademark sensuousness is layered on with a sly irony. The camera lingers on objects and trappings that today resonate with enormous nostalgic power, particularly on film: vinyl records, tabloid newspapers, cosmetics, luxurious furnishings, cocktail shakers, and pill bottles. Suddenly showered with everything she could ask for, Priscilla, overwhelmed and overshadowed by her husband’s skyrocketing fame, doesn’t really know what she truly wants. The film beautifully captures a dreamy-nightmare aesthetic, suggesting that Priscilla’s life with Elvis was a turbulent roller coaster of romantic highs and materialistic hollowness. The film’s scrupulous period detail is continually exhilarating, especially a sexy private photo shoot recreated with stunning accuracy as well as a pitch-perfect soundtrack mix that, oddly and satisfyingly, doesn’t contain a single song sung by Elvis.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s haunting visuals (expertly shot by Philippe Le Sourd, who also photographed Coppola’s sumptuous remake of The Beguiled), I found myself wishing for a deeper look at Priscilla’s inner emotional life, more scenes dramatizing her transformation from shy teenager to confident woman. Why did Coppola steer clear of a more intimate portrait? Perhaps because the director wanted to scrutinize the glittering public veneer, the aesthetic prison, that masked the suffering in what was sold to the public as a storybook marriage. Still, even if the film doesn’t probe Priscilla’s personal depths, the narrative delivers what many viewers in these tell-all days are probably hoping for: a glimpse of her famous husband as the complicated, alluring monster he most assuredly was.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.