Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s highly-anticipated eighth feature film, wastes no time in bringing us into Elvis Presley’s world, even if the film is based on Priscilla Presley’s perspective. It’s a testament to the power dynamic of their relationship as well as the stark example of grooming that is taking place right off the bat, contrary to previously romanticized versions of their relationship. In the opening scene, fourteen year-old Priscilla Beaulieu does her homework at a diner counter when a soldier essentially picks her to attend a party where Elvis will be. Priscilla frequently worries about what her parents will allow her to do and not do, but even Elvis’ star-power is no match for her concerned parents’ woes. Coppola is not shy in constantly reminding us that this is Priscilla the ninth-grader, even in a film with small amounts of dialogue. A prime example are the repeated snapshots of her doing homework, whether it is at a diner in Germany or in Elvis’ bed at Graceland while a loud party ensues downstairs. Even when we see their connection and infatuation with one another, it's successfully ushered in that Priscilla Presley never had the chance to live her own life for herself and this is where her main struggle lies. Even when she is doing age-related activities like homework, it is used as a device of her struggle again and something to get over so that everyone can fully accept her relationship with Elvis, rather than something attributed to her own life.
What stood out for me was that this film solidified Coppola’s position as a prime example of the “show, don’t tell” filmmaking style. Where there was a purposeful lack of dialogue, we had moments and polaroid-like scenes ingrained in our memories, not to mention a literal scene where a newly-married Elvis and Priscilla take polaroids of one another in bed. This allows Coppola to thread a successful boundary of Priscilla’s youth and inherent problems because of it, yet letting audiences read between the lines for themselves. Through this, Coppola suggests her respect and ability to hold her audiences, (mostly women), to a higher standard of what connections and conclusions they are able to draw, something I personally love about her and her work.
Coppola’s portrayal of women’s experiences are often successful because they are subtle. As women, we can read between the lines of her “show, don’t tell” scenes and draw conclusions out of subtle, gendered moments. Ones that stood out to me in this film include moments like Priscilla repeatedly being driven through the pearly white gates of Graceland then ultimately driving herself out at the end, a baby Lisa-Marie waving at her nonchalant dad’s leaving tour bus, and Elvis’ idea to “take a break” with an exhausted and visibly quite pregnant Priscilla, to which he then laughs, “It was a joke!” while she, unphased and uncomfortable once again, walks down the hallway to an undetermined and disheartening future. For those that cannot relate to the position Priscilla is in, the understated moments usually serve to either argue that her stories are not as profound as female audiences believe, or not meaty enough, and ultimately undeserving of the cinematic medium. While I can agree to some criticisms for this film which stem from this idea of understatement, I think the mere representation of women’s stories that are often forgotten and/or misled speaks for itself, and is important enough to excuse the lack of exaggeratedly energetic cinematic moments that are often attributed to her personal directing style.
In a review written by Letterboxd user @brianformo, he brings up an important criticism of how we never truly break barriers between Elvis, Priscilla, and audiences. “There is no real pull into his orbit,” Formo states, “He doesn’t win over the audience of Priscilla, which is necessary, even if it makes the audience uncomfortable.” While I definitely agree with this sentiment, and sort of wish I could’ve seen this version, I stand by the idea that since this is Priscilla’s perspective, as a naive young girl, she is likely unable to internalize what is ultimately out of her control and happening so fast. I am reading into her story and was recently a fourteen year old girl, but that’s still of value. She is likely also dismissive of herself when uncomfortable moments happen, and is often reminded in the film of how lucky she is to be in her position whenever she expresses a very reserved and passive antithesis to Elvis and the people around him. It is a representation of Priscilla’s struggle to even come to terms with herself, and before she knows it, she is in a long-term relationship with the biggest rock-star on the planet. Formo mentions that we “never get a sense of who she is at all.” And I think this could’ve been solved with a) a bigger budget, b) a longer run time, and c) more characterization. However, this is still not mutually exclusive to my point of her struggle to find herself, especially her being so young, so ultimately I find both of these things to be true.
What I do have a problem with, however, is some of what I heard about the budgeting for this film. Coppola often stated in interviews that she had trouble financing the film, and ultimately had to cut a week from shooting. When leaving the theater, my first thought was that it should’ve been longer. If we had a (what I would believe could be vital) scene of Priscilla’s affair with her karate instructor, Mike Stone, it would solve some of the issues of audiences not truly knowing Priscilla’s passions and interests. I feel as though this wasn’t the intent of Coppola to not include this, most especially due to budgeting problems. Which, to point out, was insane to hear about and sort of scary as a woman who wants to write, produce, and direct films in the future. Coppola, an Oscar winner, Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, and one of the most prominent, successful, and famous directors of all time had to beg for a larger budget (???) While I know budgeting will always be a struggle for filmmakers of any stature, films like aforementioned Killers of the Flower Moon, The Killer, and Elvis all had triumphing budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars while Priscilla was given $20 million and six weeks to shoot. All I can say is that I hope that this will change in the future and people can see the artistry, talent, and ultimately robbed potential that this film captures so well and makes do with its 110 minutes of run time.
The subdued and extremely enchanting performance from Cailee Spaeny stuck out for me the most. While yes, I could not look away from Jacob Elordi and his smooth way of making her feel important while also not responding to a word Priscilla says directly, Spaeny finds subtle ways to chart audiences on Priscilla’s depicted journey of fourteen years on screen, which is ironically how old she is when we first meet her. Her eyes control and express so much emotion and complexity alone. With small amounts of dialogue and Cailee’s short stature, she rises above and even precedes her reputation as the highly prestigious 2023 Cannes Volpi Cup winner for Best Actress.
Over the weekend, a woman filmmaker told me it wasn’t worth it to pursue film. “There’s no money in it,” she said. While I walked home from the theater, I had the unrelenting urge to listen to the amazing soundtrack of Priscilla, which did not include any Elvis. I immediately searched Apple Music for its soundtrack, to no avail. Once again, this film (and many others) deserves better. In this instance, it was deserving of better marketing. Maybe the soundtrack is supposed to come out on release day, but in my opinion, this all continues to push my idea that this was a depressingly undervalued production and release and Coppola’s artistry should not necessarily be to blame for its shortcomings. But it still stands alone, as Priscilla Presley once did, and chooses to speak for itself in its own way, on its own time. And that’s good enough for me right now.
★★★★ / ★★★★★