Sofia Coppola's film about a legendary rock 'n' roll couple stars Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi
Last year brought us Elvis, in which director Baz Luhrmann turned the wild, troubled life of Elvis Presley (Oscar-nominated Austin Butler) into a full-fledged carnival — thrilling rides, raucous crowds, even a sideshow tent housing a freak known as Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Now we have director Sofia Coppola’s exceptional new film about Presley’s first and only wife (Cailee Spaeny).
Think of this as the anti-Elvis. Priscilla is an understated, enigmatic fairy tale — a woozy girlhood dream of being handpicked by the King to be queen — that ends in adult disenchantment and divorce.
What makes the film both fascinating and troubling — what makes it haunting — is how Coppola has the insight to tell the story with a kind of stereoscopic vision.
On the one hand, we’re fully immersed in the perspective of young Priscilla, who’s only 14 when the 24-year-old Presley (Jacob Elordi) begins courting her. Adrift in a romantic fantasy, she floats along, slowly being pulled further into his irresistible orbit, until they finally marry.
By then, to her growing dismay and sadness, she’s no longer the starry-eyed American girl lucky enough to have caught Elvis’s attention during his military service in Germany. Now she’s a kind of Graceland concubine. Discouraged from doing anything outside the mansion apart from finishing her schooling, she moves — gingerly, beneath a black bell of shellacked hair — from empty room to empty room. She’s expected to hang around in case Elvis, enjoying his flings while making movies off in Hollywood, should call and summon her to the phone to ask how his baby doll is doin’.
The movie is a strangely exquisite portrayal of this hollow existence — Coppola is one of the few directors, maybe the only one, willing to invest (risk) an entire movie narrative with such stillness. Priscilla’s situation isn’t much different from Scarlett Johansson’s empty hours in Tokyo in Lost in Translation (Coppola’s movies, in fact, could probably all use Lost somewhere in their titles), but there’s no Bill Murray in the wings to assure her that she'll be able to move on.
All Priscilla has is her Elvis, who turns out to be a tall, cold drink of nothing (he dwarfs Priscilla physically. They're like the Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln of rock 'n' roll). When he isn’t sulking over his movie career, he’s sulking over the songs he's expected to perform (Coppola was denied access to Presley's catalog, so there's no Elvis the Pelvis in evidence). Everywhere he goes, he’s followed by a guffawing entourage of look-alike male buddies — his own passel of Ken dolls.
Priscilla, whose incrementally waning innocence is brilliantly captured by Spaeny (the performance is like watching morning dew evaporate from a lawn) winds up as shut out as Diane Keaton’s Kate at the end of The Godfather, the mob masterpiece directed by Coppola's father, Francis Ford Coppola.
But then there’s our own contemporary perspective, too — our dismay at the gross imbalance of power between this male superstar and, at most, a very young woman. To us Priscilla’s dream looks like captivity and abuse — as if Presley couldn’t help falling in love with Lolita. Coppola’s repeated shots of Priscilla’s painted toenails may or may not be a reference to the opening minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s notorious film adaptation of that Nabokov novel, just as a scene in which Elvis dictates Priscilla’s wardrobe may or may not echo a very similar moment between Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, the ultimate #MeToo movie nightmare. Your mind might just as easily register a cold, shivery reminiscence of Bluebeard, with the young girl doomed to be the next victim of the old serial killer.
The point is that the film is saturated with this sexual uneasiness. What Priscilla experiences as glamorous nothingness, the audience experiences as something more like dread.
Ultimately, Priscilla wakes up from her nightmare — she divorced Presley in 1973 — although here Coppola stumbles. There’s not really any defining moment that marks Priscilla's decision to leave Elvis. She just tells him, truthfully if rather flatly, that they aren’t spending enough time together, that they've grown apart, and that’s it. Instead, we know Priscilla is nearing the end of her Graceland journey principally because her hair has returned from a June Carter Cash pile to a soft, natural style — which, in countless, much more conventional movies, signals that our heroine has returned to normality and emotional health.
At least Barbie was jolted into action by a stabbing intimation of mortality.
Priscilla opens in theaters Friday.
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