The last time Sofia Coppola made a movie about a teenage royal living in a rococo palace that turned out to be a lavish prison, it was 2006, and the movie, “Marie Antoinette,” was a stylized dream of history — the story of the young queen as naïve and isolated rock star. Coppola’s new movie dramatizes the relationship between Priscilla and Elvis Presley, and the parallels with the earlier film are there if you want to see them. This time, though, Coppola goes in the opposite direction, working with a casually meticulous docudrama authenticity. In the 17 years since “Marie Antoinette,” she has grown as a filmmaker — her storytelling now has an organic detail and emotional precision that sweep you right up. Last year’s Elvis Presley biopic was called “Elvis.” The book that the new movie is based on was “Elvis and Me.” But Coppola’s film is called, simply, “Priscilla,” and that cues us to something essential: that the movie, while you could describe it as a love story, is not going to be told from a dual point-of-view.
This is Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s story. It’s all about how she met Elvis, at his home just off the U.S. military base in West Germany in 1959, when she was 14 years old. It’s about how she was drawn, over the protests of her parents, right into his orbit — because he was charming and sexy and famous, because he pledged to love her tender, and who was going to say no to Elvis Presley? It’s about the honest affection they shared, rooted in the fact that both of them, literally or in spirit, were overgrown kids. It’s about how after not too long, Elvis moved Priscilla into Graceland, where she was treated like a precious object and given everything she wanted — except for the freedom to make her own decisions, choose her own clothes, play with a dog on the lawn, or much of anything else. It’s about how she grew up into a kept woman, watching Elvis fly off to shoot his movies and have affairs with his costars. And it’s about the true love she felt, and the hope she nurtured that their connection could grow into something vital and soul-nourishing, instead of what it turned out to be.
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Coppola, who wrote and directed “Priscilla,” tells this story with open eyes, so that we’re caught up, for a while, in the otherworldly entrancement of what it would mean to have the biggest star on the planet choose you to be his princess. The film ushers us right into Graceland (you really feel like you’re there), showing us what happened, just as it happened, without sweetener or frills. At first we see that a lot of what transpires between Priscilla and Elvis is a heightened version of what defined so many romantic partnerships of the ’50s and ’60s, when men ruled the roost and women’s roles were subservient, proscribed, curtailed.
The daring thing Coppola does, given that we’re used to seeing even sophisticated biopics weave the lives they’re showing us into dramatic arcs, is to present the rise and fall of Priscilla and Elvis’s relationship as a diary, one that simply flows forward in a kind of objective Zen fashion, never trumping anything up. At moments you may wonder: Where are the arcs? But the arc is the whole movie — the tale of how the ebullient, soft-voiced rock ‘n’ roll idol who Priscilla thought she was falling in love with evolved into a pathological personality, though maybe he always was. The dramatic question that drives “Priscilla” is: Are we seeing a deeply flawed and ultimately wounding relationship? Or are we seeing a vibrantly innocent young woman give herself over to a mirage?
As Priscilla, Cailee Spaeny has an avid stare and a sharpness of spirit, and she makes a point of playing the teenage Priscilla as a typical American girl of her time, courtly and decorous, though with a taste for adventure. After all, she’s living in the world after Elvis Presley remade it! Priscilla’s father is stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in West Germany (Elvis was drafted into the Army at the end of 1957, a little less than two years before the movie begins), and when she sits at the counter of the base’s soda shop, we can feel her restlessness, her desire for something to happen. So when she’s approached by a soldier friend of Elvis’s, who invites her to come over to the king’s house, she’s abashed but eager.
Her parents don’t want her to go. In a way, they already know what they’re up against (though in another way, they have no idea). When she gets to Elvis’s house, there’s a party going on, and she spots him instantly, on the couch — you can’t miss the hair, which is like the pompadour as crown.
As the audience, along with Priscilla, gets its first close-up glimpse of Elvis, we can see that Jacob Elordi, the 26-year-old Australian actor from “Euphoria” and the “Kissing Booth” films, doesn’t look all that much like him. Yet his louche body language is perfect, and what he does with Elvis’s voice brings him closer to being a dead ringer than (in my opinion) Austin Butler was. Elvis’s speaking voice was a true paradox. He was a rock ‘n’ roller who sang like a house on fire, but when he spoke it was in the quietest velvet tones, incredibly serene and polite — the voice of a good ol’ boy with an inner touch of sadness. He used that quietude to draw the world to him. And Elordi nails that. His Elvis treats Priscilla with consummate gentleness, and we discover, from their first conversation, what that sadness is about. Elvis’s mother, Gladys, died the year before, and as he explains to Priscilla his mama was everything to him.
That sounds like the words of a devoted son, someone who will potentially treat the women in his life with love and respect. Actually, though, Elvis’s connection to his mother is a red flag. He’s lost without her because he has never grown up. And stardom has only arrested him further — that’s why he surrounds himself with his pals (an early version of the Memphis Mafia) as if they were a roving frat house, and it’s why he can’t say anything but “Yes, sir” to Col. Tom Parker, the Svengali manager who runs Elvis’s business and life like some authoritarian father figure. As Elvis and Priscilla commence their courtship, with carefully chaperoned visits to Graceland, Elvis makes a point of refusing to make love to her, which at first seems appropriate, since she’s just 14. But what he’s really doing is using the unconditional embrace of her innocence as a substitute for his mama. That’s why, even as Priscilla gets older, Elvis keeps being skittish about sex. It’s not that he’s protecting her. It’s that he’s got a Madonna/whore thing, which she is now the victim of.
The fascination of “Priscilla,” and the wry humanity of it, is that Coppola doesn’t overstate or telegraph any of this. She shows us how Priscilla and Elvis vibe with and take comfort in each other, but then we start to see how Elvis controls Priscilla’s wardrobe, refusing to let her wear patterned dresses (because he thinks it distracts from her beauty), or how he will slip her one of the pills he takes to regulate his sleeping (the first time she takes a barbiturate it knocks her out for two days). We realize that Elvis, a man high on himself, is, in his hipster-gentleman way, about nothing but control. Elordi and Spaeny have a height disparity more striking than that of the real Elvis and Priscilla, but it works as an expression of the couple’s power dynamic. Essentially, she has none. He calls her “my little one,” and he means: You’re a child (even after she’s grown up), you’re my lovely accessory.
So much of this reflects the pre-feminist domestic paradigm that it barely occurs to Priscilla to question it. It’s not until the summer of 1963, when Elvis is shooting “Viva Las Vegas” and has an on-the-set affair with Ann-Margret that’s splashed all over the gossip magazines, that he crosses a line that’s indefensible. He talks his way out of it, but then Priscilla discovers an amorous note to him from someone named Scooby — i.e., a non-movie-star mistress. How many of them are there? At this point, we may start to wonder why Priscilla doesn’t just leave Elvis; it’s not as if every celebrity, even back then, could simply get away with sleeping around. But Priscilla has placed all her faith in this union. She has trapped herself.
Elvis was a creative genius, a man of singular warmth and charisma, and arguably one of the most psychologically damaged celebrities of the 20th century. That’s why he destroyed himself with his vast interlocking addictions. What the movie shows you is that his relationship with Priscilla was another addiction, one that provided the comfort he yearned for, but that’s why he couldn’t see her as a full person. As “Priscilla” goes on, and Priscilla and Elvis get married and have a daughter, Lisa Marie, a dramatic chill settles over the movie. Cailee Spaeny makes Priscilla a figure of strength, but the force of her performance is how she enacts Priscilla’s slow-motion melancholy, connecting the audience right up to what it’s like to be in love with someone who turns out to be a gaslighting freak. When she finally liberates herself, it’s like she’s waking up from a dream. Early on, Priscilla tells Elvis her favorite song of his is “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Priscilla” is a piercingly honest drama about how she wound up living there.
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