Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s new film on the former wife of Elvis Presley, introduces its heroine as she is for most of the movie: surrounded by people yet psychologically alone, her interiority – thoughts, warmth, motivations, contradictions – kept at a remove. She is 14 years old, and sitting at a cafe at an army base in West Germany with her schoolwork, without friends and seemingly without much guile.
Coppola’s pacing is brisk; her Priscilla, played mesmerizingly by Cailee Spaeny, is summarily whisked into a teenage fan-girl fantasy that seems too good to be true and will provoke many viewers to check the Wikipedia to confirm the extraordinary facts. One of Elvis’s friends invites her to a party at his place; the 24-year-old matinee music idol eyes her, dolled up in the finery of a high school freshman; he asks for time with her alone.
The film is often wistful – lushly styled, beautifully designed, lingering on beauty – but clear-eyed about the genesis of this age-gap relationship; their early courtship, chaste kisses and plaintive declarations of need has the tinge of a horror movie. Elvis, played by Jacob Elordi (serviceable enough, as he’s not the point of the movie) seems primarily drawn to Priscilla’s aura of fragile innocence. She looks like a child, a girl of wide-eyed naivety and palpable loneliness, an image to be crafted. “Little one”, he calls her.
Elvis’s perception of her underscores why Priscilla Presley, US schoolgirl turned world-famous wife, is an ideal subject for Coppola. The director, herself an inheritor of cinema legacy, has built her own canon of lonely girlhood – its iconography, its isolation, its paradoxes of power. Like many of her others characters – in The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette – Priscilla is an ingenue. She learns the mileage of youth, beauty, innocence, the sweet and timid courting of male desire; keeping her inner thoughts to herself, she accrues power, only to realize just how futile that power can be. Like Marie Antoinette, she is married to a king and surrounded by lavish boorishness, yet lonely; she exists at a psychic remove.
Coppola’s film, at least initially, seems interested in interrogating that remove, for a woman so often given secondary status in her own story; to reveal the woman behind “wife to the King, icon to the world”, as the trailer promised. Young Priscilla has clear wants (to see Elvis, against her parent’s wishes) and inchoate desires (to be touched). The film takes pains to show that sex was a weird point of contention between the couple, that Elvis withheld it against her overtures, seemingly wanting to preserve her virginal purity under the guise of “waiting for the right time”. Whisked again to Graceland, all plush carpets and sinister white furniture, she grows frustrated and bored. We see her in poses of isolation – with her puppy alone on the couch, separated from fans by the front gate – and also get a sense of her vertigo. Catholic schoolgirl by day, coquette by night, subject to Elvis’s substance-fueled bouts of rage, desire and need.
This sense – a filmic feeling of what the character felt at a particular moment in time – is the primary possibility of impressionistic biopics, a subgenre, spearheaded by Pablo Larraín, that strays from formulaic convention to capture the vibes of an iconic person’s existence over the colder, harder facts of her life. Ideally, such films can convey certain sensations that pure recreation never could – Princess Diana’s achingly sad, hallucination-inducing isolation in Spencer, or Jackie Kennedy’s shock as she washes away her husband’s blood in the shower.
Priscilla is very much working in that lane; it’s less a biopic, really, than a memoir, made with input from the real Priscilla and based on her 1985 book Elvis and Me. The film is not a recounting of her life, but a creation of what it felt like to be with him, hence Coppola’s dispensation with most signposting about Elvis’s life. There’s no explanation of his military service in Germany, little sense of where he’s at in his career or his music, no appearance by Colonel Tom Parker, his controlling manager hammily played by Tom Hanks in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Coppola successfully conveys how Priscilla viewed Elvis: in isolation, a mercurial dispenser of praise, or menacing, an infantilized caretaker, a giant in miniature.
It’s a shame, then, that we get such little sense of her. Soon after Priscilla’s arrival at Graceland, the film devolves into a series of vignettes and montages that put the recreation of iconic images and the pursuit of aesthetic over any sense of the character’s interior development into a woman. The film’s delicate, fascinating portrayal of the prospect of sex amounts to nothing – Elvis takes photos of Priscilla in lingerie, they get married and lie down in bed, cut to honeymoon, cut to pregnancy, cut to leaving the hospital with Lisa Marie. What did she think about any of this? Was there pain, fear, elation, relief, boredom? The Polaroids of a young woman posing for her king are beautiful, but given their dynamic, just baseline suggestive.
Vibes, that slippery and indefinable thing, are of course essential to an impressionistic portrait, but they do not make a person. Memory, as loose and murky as it is, is still undergirded by facts, events, people. No doubt, Priscilla had feelings about her first time with Elvis, childbirth, young motherhood, doing LSD, moving to Los Angeles, making actual friends (Who? How? Over what?) having an affair (hinted but not shown), seeing her husband in visible decline (also barely shown, which is fine). Instead, we get what makes for an easy cinema language of triumph (light spoilers ahead): Priscilla in tears, stating her hard-won (yet unearned, at least on-screen) independence to her soon-to-be ex-husband, and then leaving Graceland on her own, soundtracked to Dolly Parton.
Growth happens to her, while she remains a cipher; in the end, Priscilla is a projection of shed girlhood, transparently beautiful with an opaque sense of self. The real Priscilla was, by all accounts, no wallflower. Too bad that, at least in this absorbing yet frustrating film, you could mistake her for it.