Priscilla Review: A Tender Salute to the Presley Who Survived

Director Sofia Coppola continues her fascination for lonely leading ladies by bringing Priscilla Presley, wife of Elvis, into the spotlight.
Priscilla Review: A Tender Salute to the Presley Who Survived

Director: Sofia Coppola

Writer: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi

Duration: 113 minutes

Available in: Theatres

There’s a tantalising question that hovers over director Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla. In many ways, the film’s eponymous heroine belongs to the bevy of beautiful, misunderstood and profoundly lonely women that Coppola is known for, thanks to films like The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006). Yet Priscilla Presley is not a fictional creature. She is the wife of Elvis Presley, the author of the 1985 memoir Elvis and Me (written with Sandra Harmon, on which Coppola's film is based), as well as an executive producer on Priscilla. If you needed a definitive example of claiming one’s own narrative, this would be it. 

The real Priscilla Presley may have been eclipsed by her larger-than-life rockstar husband, but here, she is very much the star of her own story. Priscilla is a languid unravelling of the tumultuous Presley marriage, told entirely from Priscilla’s perspective, and a worthy addition to Coppola’s filmography. The director excels in exploring the inner lives of women (girls, really) who are often dismissed because they attract powerful men, and are swaddled in privilege. Seen through Coppola’s distinctive gaze, these women become more than the mythology that surrounds them.  

A Star Called Cailee Spaeny

Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla’s paths first cross in 1959 when Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny; you may remember her from Mare of Easttown) is 14 years old. In theory, to use the considerable height difference between Elvis and Priscilla as a device to hammer home their power imbalance seems overly simplistic, even banal. To see it visually play out in the film is a different thing altogether. Elordi, at six-foot-five, towers over the petite Spaeny, who is barely over five feet tall. Their first kiss looks almost freakish, because of how much larger his face is compared to hers. Elvis frequently throws his arm around Priscilla, a territorial move that forces her to lean into him. When they walk together, she scurries to keep up with his long strides. Coppola wanted Priscilla to be played by an actor who would be able to convincingly act a range of ages, growing up with the character over the course of the film. Spaeny is a revelation, credibly evolving as Priscilla grows into a troubled womanhood.

Cailee Spaeny is a revelation as Priscilla
Cailee Spaeny is a revelation as Priscilla

Their story begins in West Germany. Priscilla's stepfather, an Air Force officer, has been stationed there, while Elvis, aged 24, is completing his military service. When Priscilla is invited to a party by Elvis’s friend, she blushes and tells him she needs her parents’ permission to attend. The prospect of being at a party with Elvis Presley is deliciously tempting. In their first conversation, Elvis laughs and calls Priscilla a baby when she tells him she’s in the ninth grade; Priscilla has stars in her eyes. 

Priscilla’s age (or the lack of it) is brought up several times in the film, mostly by other women. Her mother wonders why Elvis can’t find someone his own age. Scandalised women at a party remark how Priscilla looks “like a little girl”. To Elvis, she’s mature for her age. In their early conversations, he establishes a connection with Priscilla, both homesick in a foreign land (much like the main characters of Lost in Translation). Elvis opens up to her about his mother, who had passed away a few months prior, and Priscilla offers sincere comfort. When her parents question their relationship, she tells them, “Please don’t ruin my life. He just lost his mother. He’s grieving and he trusts me.” For teenaged Priscilla, the opportunity to provide comfort and feel needed by this older, cooler man is alluring. Words like “grooming” and “abuse” are never mentioned in the film, but the unsettling nature of the relationship loudly makes itself felt in Coppola’s every frame. 

Portrait of a Marriage

In the first act of the film, Spaeny embodies Priscilla’s bright-eyed naivete, childlike idealism and teenage rebellion. She simpers and fawns over Elvis, greedy for every drop of his attention. When she first arrives at Graceland (Elvis’s sprawling estate in Memphis, Tennessee), Priscilla sits on all the chairs and sofas in the living room, an eerie game of musical chairs, trying her best to fit into this new world. Elvis is often surrounded by his friends and associates (nicknamed the Memphis Mafia), while Priscilla sits at the edge, happy to just be in his presence. Elvis is mercurial, oscillating between treating Priscilla with imperious condescension and showering her with genuine affection. 

As time and the romance unravels, we begin to see glimpses of Elvis’s nasty temper and need to exert control over every aspect of Priscilla’s life. He encourages her to dye her hair black and use heavy make-up, because it “makes her eyes stand out more”. He chooses the colour of her clothes, forbids her from getting a job because he wants her to be at his beck and call, and dismisses her concerns over his affairs with his co-stars. “Don’t go imagining things,” he tells Priscilla when she finds an amorous postcard sent to him by another woman. When she tearfully protests, he roars at her to pack up her things and go back to her parents’ house. When she meekly offers her opinion about Elvis’s new song, he throws a chair at her head for not praising him outright. Anytime Priscilla displays an ounce of autonomy, Elvis is quick to check her.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny as Elvis and Priscilla Presley
Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny as Elvis and Priscilla Presley

Coppola uses the waxing and waning of sexual desire in Priscilla’s relationship to show her coming into her own as a woman. The couple spend a great deal of time in their bedroom, from pillow-fights to boudoir photography. A montage simply shows trays of food being kept outside their door day after day. There’s a shot in which Priscilla falls back on her bed, a dreamy smile on her face after a kiss with Elvis, which feels reminiscent of one from Marie Antoinette in which a euphoric Marie lies on the grass outdoors after having finally consummated her marriage with Louis. 

A major fraction of Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship, however, is sexless, as Elvis claims it is something that is sacred to him. “I can’t stand it. It’s driving me crazy,” says Prisicilla at one point. “I’m a woman with needs who needs to be desired.” After playing the perfect hostess at a party, Priscilla lies alone on the bed, sighing as she stares at the ceiling. Like Charlotte and Marie, Priscilla feels stuck as monotony sets in, and she finds herself effectively trapped in a relationship that was once her biggest fantasy. Beds are often sites of asexual intimacy in Coppola’s filmography. In Lost in Translation, for example, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) spend a sleepless night just lying side-by-side, talking about life, marriage and everything in between. Priscilla’s solitude is at odds with that tenderness. 

The Husband Trap

As the film goes on, Priscilla’s hair grows bigger and more elaborate, her make-up serving to age her. But Spaeny doesn’t rely on these tools to anchor her performance. Instead, it’s a performance grounded in nuanced body language, which signals Priscilla’s growing maturity. With each Elvis outburst (after which he immediately apologises profusely), Priscilla withdraws further, retreating deeper into a calm and composure that is rooted in disillusionment. On their wedding day, she looks almost unrecognisable from the winsome teenage girl we saw at the beginning of the film. 

Priscilla on her wedding day
Priscilla on her wedding day

At many points, Priscilla feels almost older than Elvis (an ironic validation of Elvis’s early assertion that she’s mature for her age). She constantly reassures him about his career and celebrity in his moments of insecurity. When a pregnant Priscilla tries to talk to him about his rumoured affair with Nancy Sinatra, Elvis proposes they take a break from their relationship. This time, Elvis’s dismissal is met with a quiet indifference. Priscilla just cradles her stomach and says, almost coldly, “You’ve got it. Just tell me when to leave.” Her measured restraint is in stark contrast to the raging, grovelling Elvis.

Two Elvises, One Priscilla

Last year, we saw Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy Elvis (2022), which charted the phenomenal rise of the King of Rock and Roll. But besides the shared subject matter and proximity in release dates, the two films have nothing in common. In Elvis, we see Elvis the star. In Priscilla, we see Priscilla's husband Elvis, flaws and all. Austin Butler’s Elvis is electric, larger than life — hips wiggling and Southern drawl laid on thick. Priscilla, on the other hand, is quiet. Elordi’s performance is understated, and his Elvis is charismatic, temperamental and juvenile. None of Elvis’s music or performances feature in the film, save a few brief instances. The silences invite you to feel Priscilla’s ennui rather than the adrenaline of a performer on stage. The final fight in Elvis is loud and chaotic, with Priscilla (who appears unbothered by her husband’s many affairs) ultimately walking out over Elvis’s pill addiction and negligence of his family. For Coppola’s Priscilla, the final straw is Elvis forcing himself on her when he discovers her affair with her karate trainer, and the realisation that they’re both living separate lives. “I’m leaving our marriage,” she flatly informs Elvis, who is completely blindsided. In both films, Priscilla leaves the conversation with the powerful line: “I have to go. If I stay, I’ll never leave.”

The ending of Priscilla feels almost anti-climactic. There are no grand declarations or promises, no conventionally satisfying pay-off. But the film’s triumph lies in this tranquil tenderness. Though she maintains her composure in front of Elvis, Priscilla can’t help but sob the moment she exits the room. As she drives out of Graceland and into her new life, she takes many deep breaths — as though she can’t quite believe what she’s done — before slowly settling on an expression of serenity. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” plays in the background, its lyrics dedicated to her continued affection for Elvis, but perhaps also reinforcing Priscilla’s love for her own self. It’s an ending that heralds freedom, peace and new beginnings.

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