Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Distributed by: A24

Written by Michael Clawson

Sofia Coppola has made a lustrous career out of conjuring the private and inner lives of women on screen. Her evocations of femininity are worlds unto themselves: “Lost in Translation” envelops you in the drift and melancholy of Scarlett Johansson’s lonesome newlywed; “The Virgin Suicides” dreamily summons the experience of sisterhood and cloistered adolescence in ‘70s suburbia. It’s not that Coppola isn’t a keen observer of masculinity as well – male characters are indelibly essential counterpoints in both of the director’s aforementioned films, and others – but her filmmaking is at its most confident and natural when it’s geared towards the realms of girls and women.

Coppola’s latest, “Priscilla,” is Coppola doing what she does best. Based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir, “Elvis & Me,” the film chronicles the romantic relationship between Priscilla and superstar Elvis, from their meeting in West Germany in the late ‘50s when Priscilla was only fourteen, ten years Elvis’s junior, through their split over a decade later. In the intervening years, there’s marriage, infidelity, and pregnancy, along with many yearnful, lonely days at Graceland for Priscilla while Elvis travels for film shoots and concerts. While technically a biopic, the term is a somewhat ill-fitting descriptor for “Priscilla.” Rejecting the tedious plotting of most biopics, Coppola instead directs “Priscilla” as a hushed, even-keeled mood piece. Its subdued, intimately examined emotional textures convey what can’t be summarized on Wikipedia.

Coppola tethers the film to Priscilla’s perspective. As played by an enthralling Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla is starry-eyed when she’s first invited to Elvis’s house, but she isn’t a squealing fan. Instead, her excitement as a girl with a crush flickers beneath a placid surface, her eyes watchful and her demeanor unassuming. Crucial to the film’s poignancy, Coppola never loses sight of just how young Priscilla is when she’s swept off to Memphis. Dolled up in dresses and hairdos to appease Elvis, Priscilla looks young as she wafts around Graceland, sharing Elvis’s attention in the short periods when he’s home with a coterie of his male friends, who never seem to go away. Priscilla follows Elvis from Germany back to America innocently assuming their connection will flourish once she’s out from under the thumb of her parents. But what Coppola shows is a teenaged girl living in gilded confinement (echoes of “Marie Antoinette”), whose toxic relationship with Elvis leaves her isolated, unsatisfied, and deprived of her individuality.

“Priscilla” certainly isn’t a flattering portrayal of Elvis, but it doesn’t villainize him either. He’s manipulative and neglectful to Priscilla, but his flaws manifest as entirely human. He exploits Priscilla’s affection in a way that an overprivileged celebrity in his twenties believably might. Coppola’s characterization is also appealing for how it brings Elvis down to earth from his larger-than-life position in history. Seen through Coppola’s camera, Elvis is one half of an overwhelmed young couple first, and a world-famous rock star second. Jacob Elordi has the humility to play this role without the flamboyance one might expect. He has the King’s iconic voice and even sings boisterously at the piano at one point, but his expressiveness is pleasingly in line with Coppola’s general affinity for understatement. As one might expect of this filmmaker, the period production design and costuming is handled with consummate style. The film practically smells of perfume, hairspray, and nail polish from its opening shot. Sofia Coppola has always understood the pleasure of looking at things, and “Priscilla” is no exception on that front. Records, cars, clothes, and décor are all sumptuously photographed. Rather than shallow, Coppola’s lavish attention to surfaces is intrinsic to her world-building. The magnetic center of this sensuously crafted world is Spaeny, whose revelatory performance is one of great depth.

“Priscilla” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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