Never meet your heroes, the saying goes. Sofia Coppola’s PRISCILLA would posit that neither should you marry them, have a kid with them, or agree to live in their gilded cage. The film – told firmly from the perspective of Elvis Presley’s wife – strips away the fripperies of the pop-cultural image of ‘The King’ to present a compelling and heartbreaking tale of a tarnished dream, the creepy infantilisation of women by abusive partners, and the arrogance of revered men.
Cailee Spaeny takes on the role of Priscilla as a school child, asked to a party at Elvis’s abode while her father and the pop icon are on military duty in Germany. A connection between the high-schooler and the musician in his twenties is viewed sceptically by her parents but is permitted based on his politeness and, likely, awe-inducing presence. His return to the USA before she finishes school breaks her heart, but leads to a long-distance courtship that eventually sees her finishing her schooling while living at Graceland under the watch of Presley’s family.
PRISCILLA treads a fine line with aplomb, at once presenting both Presley’s allure (although this will tarnish as the film goes on and the curtain is pulled back) to a teenage Priscilla, and the inherent imbalance of power between the global superstar and the high-schooler. To the film’s credit, it does this by also focusing upon small but significant ways the Presley clan (father Vernon is an overbearing presence at Graceland) hem Priscilla in, rather than just re-emphasising the 10-year age gap between the lovers and Presley’s abusive behaviours. That it communicates Elvis’s allure without leaning on Presley’s music is also pointed (when it would be tempting to have famous lyrics such as ‘We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much, baby’ ring tragically in your ears.)
“PRISCILLA treads a fine line with aplomb, at once presenting both Presley’s allure (although this will tarnish as the film goes on and the curtain is pulled back) to a teenage Priscilla, and the inherent imbalance of power between the global superstar and the high-schooler.”
When Elvis asks the 14-year-old Priscilla to “promise” him she’ll “stay the way [she is] now”, it underscores a supposedly romantic moment with his desire to keep Priscilla as an obedient star-struck teenager. Rather than grow into an adult companion with agency outside the luxurious detention she’ll endure in Tennessee, the star has an almost megalomaniacal wish to preserve her in amber. When reconnecting with her by phone three years after he left Germany, Coppola’s script knows the buttons to press in having Elvis ask, “How’s my little one?” The word choice of telling her she will “have to forget” notions of a job feels pointed. PRISCILLA spends the rest of its runtime bringing its lead character to the same realisation with which the audience begins the film: that her perceived role is to be a subservient adornment to her husband’s life, not a partner in it.
The script does not focus purely on gender politics but also has time to prod at the enduring fascination with and the cult of ‘celebrity’. Despite paying lip service to strict discipline, Priscilla’s parents are as bowled over by Elvis’s interest in their daughter as she is. Spaeny’s performance, spanning multiple stages of maturity and realisation as Priscilla, is superb. She is believable both as the doe-eyed schoolchild and as the film progresses her into womanhood, thanks to her performance and some excellent hair, makeup, and costuming work.
“There isn’t a female-coded word which seems to encapsulate quite the same thing as ‘emasculating’ for Priscilla’s story here, [but] the greatest strength of PRISCILLA is in communicating that story outside the constriction of patriarchal language.”
Whether Coppola’s visuals and (otherwise finely tuned) script pay enough attention to realising Priscilla’s interior thoughts on screen is debatable, with the immaculately realised and almost tactile fashion and imagery of the times as memorable an element as the central relationship. Compared to Pablo Larraín’s similarly-themed SPENCER, PRISCILLA feels much more slight (although it’s an amusing contrast to note the quintessentially American story here suggests celebrity reverence as a corrupting force, something which feels almost quaint next to Larraín’s allusions to the insidious apparatus of the British state).
The film then accelerates through Priscilla’s maturation and escape from her life with Elvis in a manner that makes the conclusion slightly abrupt. However, the central performance from Spaeny, the myriad ways in which the script communicates her infantilisation, and the production design deliver the film’s message long before then. There isn’t a female-coded word which seems to encapsulate quite the same thing as ‘emasculating’ for Priscilla’s story here, and one would struggle to describe her journey as one of (the similarly gender-coded) ‘empowerment’. The greatest strength of PRISCILLA is in communicating that story outside the constriction of patriarchal language.