It’s no secret that Sofia Coppola has made a career out of depicting young women and their “gilded cages.” Its a phrase the director uses herself to describe the often opulent locales in which she traps her protagonist. Be it a grand Tokyo hotel, the palace at Versailles or mansions of Beverley Hills, Coppola uses the trappings of beautiful places to accentuate the loneliness of the young women who inhabit them. While Elvis Presley’s massive estate at Graceland may skew more gaudy that gorgeous, it’s halls turns cavernous for the singer’s young paramour in Priscilla.
Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) is a typical military brat, floating through her days as a high school freshman in the West German town in which her father has been stationed. There is precious little to do for a fourteen year old, that is until she is drawn into the orbit of Elvis (Jacob Elordi) — an army private and, oh yeah, the King of Rock and Roll. Much to the dismay of her parents, Priscilla is swept up by that same charisma that made millions of young women and girls fall for Elvis.
Her parents are concerned of course because their daughter, just fourteen, is being courted by a 24 year old man. When they first meet, Elvis calls Priscilla “just a baby” before promptly inviting her back again and into his bedroom. Everyone is keenly aware that Priscilla is a schoolgirl and Coppola is determined to ensure the audience will not forget it either. The 6 foot 5 inch Elordi towers over the 5 foot 1 Spaeny, reinforcing not just the age difference but also the power dynamics at play. That casting is the most obvious but certainly not the only way Coppola deftly uses visual language to add depth and context to the tale.
A tour of military service does not last forever and after a few months courting Priscilla, Sergeant Presley is ready to trade in his gun for a guitar again. Despite promises that he will never forget her, Elvis exits Germany and Priscilla’s life. His absence leaves a void that devastates the young Beaulieu even as his presence — in tabloids and on records — is inescapable. For two years this pattern holds and rumors of affairs swirl while Priscilla can only sit and wait. Then the phone rings.
An affair with Nancy Sinatra complete, Elvis is finally ready to return to the young girl he had groomed back during his military service. He brings Priscilla, now 17 and still in high school out to Graceland and enrolls her in a catholic school there. Most high school seniors have only final exams to worry about, Priscilla has the added pressure of dealing with Elvis’s growing drug addiction, long absences filming movies and rumors of infidelity. When he is present, the King spends most of his time with a close circle of buddies while Priscilla sits idly aside or awaits him in the bedroom. In a room full of people or an empty house she is equally alone.
Priscilla’s predicament is actualized brilliantly by each of Coppola’s choices. While Elvis is there a palpable energy can be felt, he is the sun in any room he enters, drawing everyone else in with a gravitational pull. When he’s gone Priscilla’s satellite is left adrift in the vast emptiness of their Memphis home. She wanders a cavernous palace and that both dwarfs her and imprisons her. Elvis wont allow her guests into his home and demands that she stay put when he’s away. Her fairytale castle has become her penitentiary.
Priscilla herself changes drastically throughout the film. Elvis decides what his lover can wear, what her hair should look like, what car she drives, where she is at any moment and even prohibits her for working or socializing outside of Graceland. She cannot beat him in a pillow fight, must wear blue, day her hair black and share in whatever hobby has caught his mercurial attention. When Elvis asks that Priscilla stay at Graceland and “keep the home fires burning” while he is on a film set sleeping with starlets, she replies back that the “home fires are getting real low.” Elvis quips back that she “is sounding just like” him and the transformation from girl into accessory is essentially complete.
Priscilla tracks its protagonist from the moment she meets Elvis until the dissolution of their marriage. Even this telling of her life is bounded by her relationship to The King. Elvis is an oppressive, occasionally violent catalyst of change in Priscilla’s life and most of the film builds up to her breaking point. Finally released from his grip, Priscilla can find herself, a change represented on screen by a return to her natural hair and casual style.
Spaeny plays both of these transformations well, displaying the fragility of a life built on a foundation of sand but also the resiliency of a woman and mother who has had to survive in such an environment. The production itself benefits greatly as well from having to survive similar coercion from Elvis Presley. His family and estate refused to allow any of his music to be used in Coppola’s film. Ironically this opened up Thomas Mars — Coppola’s partner and frequent collaborator — and Phoenix to compose a soundtrack that captures the mentality of a young girl’s whirlwind, then nightmarish, romance much better than any Elvis track could.
The story of Priscilla Presley is one that neatly fits with the ideas that Sofia Coppola has been depicting for two decades now. Priscilla’s psyche is delicately portrayed through every porcelain knick knack and each lonely hallway of Graceland. Sympathy is elicited for this young girl who has lost so much, including a self identity was stripped from her so young, but never is pity asked for as Priscilla’s resiliency shines through each scene and she carves out a life for herself from the shadow her husband.
With Priscilla, Coppola turns Graceland into another of her signature “gilded cages” and Elvis into it’s warden. She is able to capture the loneliness of Priscilla in a room full of people better than she has managed with anyone since Scarlett Johansson wandered the temples of Kyoto in Lost in Translation. In turn Priscilla is Coppola’s best film since her 2003 magnum opus. Her auteurist touch breathes a visual and emotional depth to Priscilla Presley whose own legacy has so often been tethered to that of her ex-husband. 9/10