To be married to Elvis Presley is to become one with him. It’s a sentiment that sounds romantic, emblematic of a grand life that will be shared in both its joy and sorrow. But it’s more telling of how all-consuming the King of Rock and Roll’s presence truly is, how it renders everything subsistent on his every whim and unable to exist outside of him. Even today, Elvis’s shadow looms heavy over Priscilla Presley whose identity will forever be tied to him, where any discussion of her life inevitably becomes about him. It’s perhaps why she chose to title her memoir “Elvis and Me”, suggestive of a life, and love, lived on someone else’s terms.
Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of that autobiography boldly rejects its title, plastering her first name in a lavish, ornate font that’s front and centre. From its first frame to its last, Priscilla never lets us forget this is her story—one that casts its own shadow and forges its own path.
Coppola’s stamp on this story is apparent from the get-go, as it captures a ravishing but toxic romance with great poise and grace, navigating Priscilla’s first encounter with Elvis to their subsequent marriage, and ultimate unraveling. It’s a cinematic account that illuminates profound truths with the subtlest of touches, portraying how a partner slowly becomes property.
The film begins with a teenage Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) living in an army base in West Germany with her mother (Dagmara Domińczyk) and father (Ari Cohen). She’s invited to a party to meet the one and only Elvis (Jacob Elordi). Though she’s only 14, she’s bewitched by his doles of charm and his boyish good looks, quickly taking the pop star’s hand in romance. So begins her decadent life of love in Graceland’s gilded cage, where she’s forced to become a woman before the ink even is dry on her high school diploma.
Priscilla’s portrayal of Elvis in not in the least bit flattering but is possibly more authentic and honest. It stands in stark contradiction to Austin Butler’s rendition of the King in Baz Luhrman’s biopic, depicted as an emotional manipulator who both literally and figuratively towers over his teenage partner. He attempts to turn her into exactly the kind of girl he wants, doing away with her natural brown hair and floral dresses, cementing her as someone who will never complain, will bear him a child, and will take care of his castle while he’s away for weeks on end, generating headlines of his affairs.
Elordi’s performance does a lot with very little, as there’s nary a scene of him performing on stage. Both intoxicating and commanding, Elordi casts a spell on us, enchanting us like Priscilla was when she first laid eyes on him and shocking us with his sudden spurts of rage. Elordi’s Elvis is moody and impressionable, prone to flights of fancy that have no room for dissension.
Yet, it’s Spaeny who is the film’s beating and battered heart. Her performance is one of reactions, but is no less expressive, capturing both hope and heartbreak with just her eyes—which first look up to the glistening star in front of her and then evolve to see right through his manipulative façade. In one fell swoop, Spaeny captures the chasm between Priscilla’s promising girlhood and disillusioned womanhood. It’s a performance not only bound for Oscar glory but indicative of truths we can’t bear to hear about our heroes.
Coppola, in tandem with her cinematographer Phillip le Sourd, lends great texture to each lushly realized frame. There’s a tangible, lilting current of melancholy that permeates the experience, imbuing great depth into the immaculate period detail of West Germany’s frosty diners and Graceland’s soulless extravagance. Moreover, Coppola’s use of silence speaks volumes, capturing a genuine love between the two that’s doomed from their first awkward pause. Her vision is full of visual motifs, the most striking of which is Priscilla’s hair slowly returning to its natural brown hue, and by proxy, returning her lost identity.
While languidly paced, Coppola’s screenplay lags in its last act, repeating many of the same beats towards a sudden, and lacking finale. Nonetheless, Priscilla is a ravishing tale of a doomed romance, and though it will divide fans of the King, it’s an important look at a figure who’s long been denied a voice of her own.
Priscilla is playing in theaters November 3rd