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Priscilla

Sofia Coppola explores Priscilla and Elvis Presley's complicated romance in a deeply felt and sublimely acted film that's among the writer/director's very best.
By Sarah Ward
January 18, 2024
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By Sarah Ward
January 18, 2024
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Yearning to be one of the women in Sofia Coppola's films is futile, but for a single reason only: whether she's telling of teenage sisters, a wife left to her own devices in Tokyo, France's most-famous queen, the daughter of a Hollywood actor, Los Angeles high schoolers who want to rob, the staff and students at a girls school in the American Civil War, a Manhattanite worried that her husband is being unfaithful or Priscilla Presley, as the writer/director has across eight movies to-date, no one better plunges viewers into her female characters' hearts and heads. To watch the filmmaker's span of features from The Virgin Suicides to Priscilla is to feel as its figures do, and deeply. The second-generation helmer is an impressionistic great, colouring her flicks as much with emotions and mood as actual hues — not that there's any shortage of lush and dreamy shades, as intricately tied to her on-screen women's inner states, swirling through her meticulous frames.

Call it the "can't help falling" effect, then: as a quarter-century of Coppola's films have graced screens, audiences can't help falling into them like they're in the middle of each themselves. That's still accurate with Priscilla, which arrives so soon after Elvis that no one could've forgotten that the lives of the king of rock 'n' roll and his bride have flickered through cinemas recently. Baz Luhrmann made his Presley movie in Australia with an American (Austin Butler, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as Elvis and an Aussie (Olivia DeJonge, The Staircase) as Priscilla. Coppola crafted hers in North America with a Brisbanite (Jacob Elordi, Saltburn) in blue-suede shoes and a Tennessee-born talent (Cailee Spaeny, Mare of Easttown) adopting the Presley surname. The two features are mirror images in a hunk of burning ways, including their his-and-hers titles; whose viewpoint they align with; and conveying what it was like to adore Elvis among the masses, plus why he sparked that fervour, compared to expressing the experience of being the girl that he fell for, married, sincerely loved but kept in a gilded cage into she strove to fly free.

For the leads playing their titular parts, the two Presley portraits of the 2020s far are also star-making pictures. If Spaeny becomes her director's new muse, it's much-deserved based on her turn as an excited and longing teen, then the isolated high-school senior and stuck-at-home girlfriend who's so controlled that she's instructed to dye her hair the same black that Elvis sports (by him), then the wife and mother virtually living a separate life. In fact, she was recommended by Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Coppola's muse since her debut feature, aka Spaeny's co-star in 2024's upcoming Civil War. Although finding someone who could take the role across a decade and a half, and be as genuine as a smitten teen, a fed-up woman deciding to claim her own life and everything in-between wouldn't have been easy, Priscilla's Venice International Film Festival Volpi Cup for Best Actress-winning choice is sublime.

Priscilla Beaulieu is just 14 when she's invited to a party at Elvis' home in West Germany, where she's an army brat with a strict dad (Ari Cohen, Fargo) in the service and he's a 24-year-old donning the uniform solely because he's been drafted. Asked if she likes Elvis by one of his pals, her response is: "of course, who doesn't?". She subsequently can't help falling, as is to be expected of a girl being paid attention by one of the biggest stars on the planet. In the giddy aftermath of their first meetings, during their early courtship and when Elvis heads back home, Coppola gets her The Beguiled and On the Rocks cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd roving over fabrics and handwriting, two staple details in her work, to assist in showing the heady passion that pulsates through Priscilla. As her films keep demonstrating, you can glean much about someone by the textures that they surround themselves with, the way they communicate via the written word, and the care they take with each. Here, you can tell how Priscilla's namesake initially feels like she's living in a fantasy come true.

As witnessed through Priscilla Presley's eyes — as adapted by Coppola from Priscilla's 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, and boasting an also-brilliant Elordi as the brooding and volatile Elvis — this romance is never a fairy tale, however. She swoons. She pines. She begs her parents (with Succession's Dagmara Dominczyk as her mother) to let her visit Graceland, and then to move there. She does what Elvis says, and shapes herself by his wishes and whims. She acts in the 50s-trained mould, with its firmly defined gender roles, as he also does. Priscilla spies the period, its expectations and demands, but it also spots the imbalance in power that goes beyond social norms. Leaving Elvis' music off the Phoenix-supervised soundtrack wasn't the original plan, after Coppola sought permission from his estate and was denied, yet it has a potent effect: as tunes other than his echo, and not only from the time — a Ramones cover of 'Baby, I Love You' and Dan Deacon's 2007 track 'The Crystal Cat', for instance — the film divorces itself from his perspective, and from what was accepted in the era.

From the moment that it starts with red toenails upon shag carpeting, then, until it closes with swinging gates and one of the greatest songs that Dolly Parton has ever written (and a sentiment that never rings false), Priscilla is what many Coppola flicks are: an account of a woman trying to discover herself in restrictive circumstances where her existence is defined by a man. The picture's protagonist is The Virgin Suicides' siblings cooped up in their home, and Lost in Translation's left-behind spouse. She's Marie Antoinette's partner to royalty, complete with an unhappy bedroom life — the Presleys' romance is chaste when Priscilla is younger, then Elvis remains largely uninterested when she's older — and Somewhere's adoring youth in a star's shadow as well. Coppola sees the limits placed upon the women before her camera, the abodes they're trapped in and how they pass the time. In a revelatory fashion, she's well-aware that so much of Priscilla's life with Elvis was filled with just that as he went on tour, made movies in Los Angeles, and had gossip all aflutter about affairs with Speedway's Nancy Sinatra and Viva Las Vegas' Ann-Margret: Priscilla on her lonesome passing the time.

While Coppola has never made a feature that's less than excellent, Priscilla is among her most-accomplished. Every inch always means something in the director's oeuvre, and proves immaculate and intimate. Such truths from her filmography resound again here to perfection, with exquisitely ravishing aesthetics — also thanks to costume designer Stacey Battat, who has worked on every one of the helmer's pictures since Somewhere, as well as Nightmare Alley production designer Tamara Deverell — helping to amplify the picture's emotional intensity. Coppola's little-less-conversation approach finds its action in glances and stares, and in being all shook up by what's not uttered. It's absorbing and mesmerising, heartbreaks, hardships and all. Priscilla herself wouldn't want anyone aching for her experience, but she'd surely hope for the crucial feat that Priscilla overwhelmingly achieves: ensuring that viewers feel as if they've lived it.

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