Subtle But Superb: Our Review of ‘Priscilla’

Posted in Movies by - November 02, 2023
Subtle But Superb: Our Review of ‘Priscilla’

The first time I watched a Sofia Coppola movie, I was in Grade 8 – an entry-level teenager keen to see The Virgin Suicides, because the name sounded edgey to me. What I got at the cinema was something more profound than provocative; I felt seen. When an old male physician asks Cecilia Lisbon why the adolescent would attempt suicide, asserting she isn’t even old enough to know how terrible life can be, Cecilia’s precocious response was everything to me: “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” In that moment, I knew Sofia Coppola was a filmmaker who didn’t think teen girls were disposable; Instead, she centred girls in the story, and more than twenty years later, she continues to do so.

Priscilla is the latest offering from Oscar-winning screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Sofia Coppola. Based on the memoir Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley herself, it tells the story of the young Priscilla Beaulieu’s relationship with one of the most famous humans to ever live. And, unlike last year’s popular Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis, the eponymous Priscilla is the story’s undisputed star. 

The film opens with a shot of Priscilla’s bare feet (toenails painted red) gliding over a shag carpet. She is getting ready for the day, putting on her signature makeup and false eyelashes, spraying her iconic black beehive. And while we see fragments of her person – an eye, the top of her head – we never get to see the whole Priscilla, making the opening sequence a clever nod to how Priscilla herself was effaced by her marriage. The world didn’t see the full her – she disappeared behind a look Elvis himself imposed on his young partner.

As a former teenage girl myself and the mother of a daughter, it was a relief to see Coppola’s film doesn’t make any excuses for Elvis, who blatantly groomed his wife. Rather, its sympathies lay squarely with Priscilla, who was just fourteen and living on a military base in Germany when one of his army buddies recruited her to date the pop star, who was finishing his stint in service at the time. 

When she receives the invitation to party with Elvis, Prscilla’s parents are uncertain about the idea of their daughter fraternizing with a 24- year-old rock star’s soiree, but they have little choice; their teenager refuses to miss an opportunity to meet the man who produced songs she loves, her favourite being “Heartbreak Hotel.” Imagine telling a girl in 2023 she couldn’t attend a party she was invited to at Harry Styles’ house? As Coppola, herself a mother of girls, seems to understand, so much of parenting a daughter is watching on in horror as the world comes for your baby. 

Another key theme of the film is fame, which, as Priscilla demonstrates, functions like a magnet. When Priscilla meets Elvis, he knows full well how young she is, exclaiming, “You’re just a baby.” But that doesn’t stop the rock star from pursuing her. And for her part, Priscilla is too drawn to the world’s most famous pop star to see anything untoward about his intentions. Just like the young women Coppola shows screaming for Elvis at the airport, Priscilla is irrevocably in love with him… 

Soon, Elvis is molding Priscilla to his will, dressing the young woman in designer clothes, insisting she avoids “prints” and instructing her to dye her hair black to bring out her eyes. While Priscilla occasionally rebels by sneaking on a dress in a pattern he doesn’t like, she more or less complies with the mercurial celebrity’s wishes. “Promise me you’ll stay the way you are,” he admonishes her at the start of their relationship, making it clear what Elvis is after: a girl he can control, not a woman who’ll be his partner.

As Elvis and Priscilla begin living together, the abuse intensifies. He hits Priscilla, threatens to leave her if she gets a job, and insists she must be tolerant of his very public affair with actress Ann-Margret. And while Priscilla Presley herself claims she and Elvis did not have sexual intercourse until they were married in her twenties, they did, as Elvis says in the movie, “do other things.”  

Coppola’s canny filmmaking drives home how much of a prisoner Priscilla was in Elvis’ home. The film is full of tight shots of Graceland’s interiors that give one a feeling of claustrophobia while driving home a key point: Graceland was more of a posh jail than a dreamhouse for Priscilla, who could not come and go as she pleased. The script and cinematography imbue it with a distinctly Female Gaze:  Priscilla’s perspective is tightly controlled by a male partner who will not allow her to see his full life. Instead, Elvis confines her to a narrow, domestic space as he travels the world performing, making movies, and having adulterous affairs.

While Coppola’s technical excellence as a director ensures Priscilla’s story always looks excellent, the film’s heart can be found in its performances. Leads Caelee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi give naturalistic portrayals of the icons they are tasked with playing, rather than resorting to cheap impressions. And while the film is quieter and less flashy than last year’s Elvis, it’s also more human. You realize these people and their problems were real, even if they were larger than life in our popular imaginations.   

When portraying a world-famous celebrity, it is easy to do a hokey imitation or to forget to act at all (Cough, Dominic West portraying Prince Charles in The Crown, cough). However, Elordi and Spaeny strike a balance between cheesy impersonation and complete disregard for what an icon actually sounded like. When Elvis and Priscilla meet and fall in love, you can feel the three-dimensional humanity in these characters, even if you wish Elvis’ behaviour had been very different.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Priscilla is how Coppola shapes it into a story of female empowerment. The tale of a 14-year-old who is groomed by a rock star isn’t one you expect to have a happy ending, but without being cheesy or forced, Priscilla finds the joy and freedom that can be found in escaping domestic abuse. 

As award season approaches, Priscilla should be part of the conversation. Spaeny and Elordi both ought to receive nominations for acting, and Ms. Coppola certainly deserves another nomination for Best Director. Let’s see if The Academy agrees….

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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