Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) notices Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) immediately at a party, and asks if she’s a senior. “Ninth,” she says sheepishly. At first, he’s not sure what he means. She clarifies, “ninth grade.” He exclaims, “You’re just a baby!”
Tapping his feet by the record player, the international superstar asks Priscilla what the kids are listening to these days. “Bobby Darin, Fabian…” and, after a pause, “and you.” He grins shyly. As they perch on his little loveseat together in a quiet room upstairs, Elvis confides in Priscilla about his grief of his mother’s recent death and his homesickness, and she confesses her own.
From their first meeting, Priscilla’s life only gets more and more dreamlike.
From their first meeting, Priscilla’s life only gets more and more dreamlike. Elvis’s colleague calls her house that week to ask if Elvis can take her on a date. “He wants to see me?” she asks. After the movie – where he knows and recites every line – Elvis tells Priscilla about his own dreams. He wants to be a great actor, like Marlon Brando or James Dean. Even Elvis longs for some deeper greatness.
In perhaps the most classic example of director Sofia Coppola’s framework, each progression in the relationship is followed by a close-up of Priscilla’s face as her sense of self shifts. The morning after her first kiss with Elvis, Priscilla walks down school hallways with a secretive, dreamy smile. Her expression is much emptier on this same walk after Elvis has returned home to the States and seemingly forgotten her.
Priscilla’s parents, played by Ari Cohen and Succession’s Dagmara Dominczyk, are the only protective figures for Priscilla. They alone react to the strangeness of the situation: an unimaginably famous and successful adult selecting a very young girl seemingly out of nowhere and wholly removing her from her life. But Priscilla’s parents’ efforts to protect her are nothing against the force of Elvis paired with the will of a teenage girl in love.
When Priscilla moves to Graceland to live in Elvis’s house and finish her final year of high school at a local Catholic school – which is as strange as it sounds, and did happen in real life – Elvis leaves her waiting for several weeks while he is away filming a movie. This creates a situation that becomes recurring, of Priscilla in the lush beige house, wearing pretty dresses, playing with her little white dog, and waiting for Elvis.
As their relationship develops, Priscilla holds out hope that eventually Elvis will really be hers. Yet it doesn’t quite seem to happen, even when they’re engaged, even when they have a child together. The same shot is repeated several times throughout the film: the frame slowly zooming out on silent Priscilla left behind by Elvis, disappearing into a screaming crowd.
Gradually we realize Elvis will never really be Priscilla’s. There are moments: the delight of their trip to Las Vegas, the thrill of the car he buys for her when she graduates high school (because slowly, she is growing up.) But mainly, Elvis seems to inhabit a world much larger than Priscilla’s, one where she isn’t invited, and where she is often actively replaced, as evidenced by the tabloids she reads about his romances with other celebrities. In fact, Elvis prefers Priscilla not to have her own world at all. She can’t have her own friends (she’s told not to bring girls home from school), and his friends are all men older than her. She can’t take a job. He tells her explicitly that he wants her to be there whenever he needs her.
It is notable that the longest, most intimate sequence they have together involves them taking and posing for photos together.
It is notable that the longest, most intimate sequence they have together involves them taking and posing for photos together. It’s playful and sexy. This relationship is founded on their love for looking at each other. They’re close together, but they’re holding a camera in that small space between them. And when the camera comes down and they start a pillow fight, it quickly becomes not fun anymore, as Elvis turns physically violent.
In fact, many of their relationship’s most important moments happen when they’re posed for photographs. The part of their wedding that we see is when they pose for flashing cameras behind their cake, creating the now-iconic photo of the real Priscilla and Elvis at their wedding. Elvis and Priscilla spend time with their daughter to pose for family photos, before her nanny takes her away again.
It becomes painfully obvious that Elvis chose Priscilla so she could fulfill the very specific role of docile and innocent companion. This dynamic, in which a young girl is isolated from family and friends by a much more powerful man and the institutional forces around him, can easily feel quite dark, especially given the breathtaking cruelty of Elvis himself. In her storytelling, Sofia Coppola does a beautiful job of not shying away from that darkness while also showing real moments of affection and play, and of showing how Priscilla grows up against and within these tight confines, becoming a real woman with real longings.
I did love this film for how it reminded me of Sofia’s early work.
I did love this film for how it reminded me of Sofia’s early work: The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation. However, I’m asking myself why I loved her 2006 movie Marie Antoinette so much more than Priscilla. Marie Antoinette feels like a bigger movie in many ways: it has a larger cast, a wider tonal range, and a richer political backdrop (one that starts out as faint and hidden as the backdrop of Elvis’s fame in Priscilla, but that asserts itself later on in Marie Antoinette’s life.) Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla ultimately chooses what to do with her life, whereas her Marie Antoinette only finds small forms of rebellion within the confines of life in Louis XVI’s court, and is ultimately swept away by the political forces around her. And yet somehow Priscilla feels like the much less active, less arresting character.
Both actors form a pair that is sometimes sweet and occasionally electric (although maybe just because they’re both so beautiful).
This isn’t to say anything against Cailee Spaeny’s performance, which was masterful. Her many shades of gentleness are riveting to watch. She’s captured this quality which is characteristic of the real Priscilla, and nothing like Cailee in interviews. Jacob Elordi, too: he pulls off a character made of gestures (the accent, the swagger) in a way that is still somehow subtle and recognizable as human. Both actors form a pair that is sometimes sweet and occasionally electric (although maybe just because they’re both so beautiful), while the dominating feeling is of distance; they really don’t seem to have intense chemistry, though this might be the point.
I find myself wondering if this movie feels small because it had so many constraints in its production. It was shot in a month, with a small budget, and it spans a timeline of 14 years. Perhaps Sofia couldn’t take the same artistic liberties she took with the relationships, characters, and world of Marie Antoinette because this time, she had the real Priscilla beside her (she is executive producer), someone who has truly lived this, and whose truth a filmmaker can only gesture at understanding.
Sofia Coppola has added another jewel to her canon of exploring the unique beauty and richness that can form within a confined life.
Still, it makes me happy to know that Priscilla herself has supported this film all throughout, and that she’s said the portrayal resonates with her. Maybe this movie feels small because Priscilla’s life was small, devastatingly and necessarily so, during her time with Elvis. Sofia Coppola has added another jewel to her canon of exploring the unique beauty and richness that can form within a confined life.
© Amelie Lasker (11/8/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
See Priscilla now in theaters.
Read the book that inspired the movie, written by Priscilla Presley.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Cailee Spaeny in PRISCILLA (2023). Photo Credit: FlixPix / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2T1JP27
Middle photo: Cailee Spaeny in PRISCILLA (2023). Photo Credit: FlixPix / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2T1JP20
Bottom photo: Sofia Coppola, Cailee Spaeny and Priscilla Presley at the photo call for the film Priscilla at the 80th Venice International Film Festival. Photo Credit: Doreen Kennedy / Alamy Live News / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2RPDT3E