By the time I got around to seeing director Sofia Coppola’s much anticipated Priscilla (2023) at the 67th BFI London Film Festival, the hype machine was already in full swing. It had premiered at the Venice International Film Festival around a month earlier to a chorus of critical praise. Festivals, however, are a hotbed of impulsive reactions, fuelled by the social drug of choice (social media), the need to be relevant, and film criticism as a quick-fire round on an afternoon quiz show.
Based on Priscilla Presley’s memoirs Elvis and Me (1985), Priscilla’s story opens in 1959 on a US military base in West Germany. It’s likely in the town of Bad Nauheim, where the 24-year-old Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) had been stationed following his conscription a year earlier. Here, he meets the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), and after a lengthy seven-year courtship, the couple marry in 1967. Coppola chronicles their romance, from their first meeting until Priscilla initiates a divorce in 1973.
I remember my first impression of Sofia Coppola’s films. It was a winter afternoon, and I was walking around before the screening of Lost in Translation (2003), killing time as I sunk into a feeling of sadness, which would complement the film’s themes. Her sophomore feature gave an impression of an emerging strong voice in cinema. But aside from Somewhere (2010), she has struggled in the years that followed to match her early works, and Priscilla is not the break in that storm. That said, Coppola still possesses that mercurial presence that stirs anticipation and interest in whatever she does.
Priscilla’s first image is a shot of a woman’s feet, with brightly red painted toenails sinking into a lush carpet. It’s not the first time Coppola has begun a film by focusing on a specific part of a woman’s anatomy. In Lost in Translation, she opens on the derrière of the female protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson, who is lying on a bed wearing a grey top and pink panties, across which the film’s title appears one word at a time. This was more specific than her choice of shots in her 1999 feature debut, The Virgin Suicides, which opens on Kirsten Dunst, from the waist up, standing in the street, looking around as she finishes her ice lolly before exiting the screen right. In Marie Antoinette (2006), Dunst lays on a chaise longue licking her finger clean of iced pink cake while a maid attends to putting on her pumps.
Considering the female gaze and the introductory framing of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, with his head leaning against a car window, the shot of Johansson’s derrière is a provocative image coming from a then-emerging female filmmaker. While Priscilla’s opening is more neutral, with her troubling and provocative adaptation of Presley’s memoirs, Coppola is unable to avoid placing herself in a compromising position.
Coppola clearly loves Elvis and Priscilla’s world. However, her enthusiasm is not shared by the film’s audience. Unfortunate is the absence of the film’s soul in contrast to the loneliness and existential emotions of Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Even 2017’s The Beguiled, with its themes of repressed passion, feels more alive than Priscilla.
It’s difficult to understand the reason for the existence of this soulless and sanitised biopic that seems scared to dig down into the dark underbelly of a great American love affair. Coppola handles the 30-day shoot with technical proficiency, but it’s structured as a casual stroll through the couple’s relationship.
Priscilla is a technical exercise, the type of film a director without any comprehension of narrative, themes, and ideas would write and direct. This isn’t Coppola, who has shown an ability – even when channeling a more elusive art house style as with Somewhere – to layer her stories with meaning. Priscilla feels like a film made by a burnt-out filmmaker set on autopilot without either self-awareness or self-critique.
The passivity of Coppola’s approach to look but not see is problematic. Priscilla’s memoirs are described as containing more forthwith details of the nature of the couple’s physical intimacy and how they abstained from sex until they were married, discovering other means of sexual pleasure. She also writes about his jealousy, promiscuity, and the effect on their relationship.
Elvis’ affair with Swedish actress and singer Ann-Margret early in their marriage was a significant episode. After it was resolved, Priscilla continued to suspect her husband’s promiscuity and reportedly accompanied him more when he travelled. Knowing how to manipulate her, he’d threaten to send her back to her parents when she challenged or argued with him. Coppola glosses over this, and despite a moment of brief violence, the bedroom scenes with the couple are presented as if dreamt up by teenage girls at a sleepover. Meanwhile, the Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra affairs are minor acknowledgments – punches pulled.
There’s an irony here because, in a joint interview with Presley, Coppola told The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Keegan, “Her story was so vivid in my mind and the visuals of that world, Memphis, the ’60s. It’s so American. And I always like themes about finding one’s identity and teenage girls growing into adulthood.” Priscilla, an executive producer, spoke about trusting Coppola, in part because she’d grown up with a famous filmmaker for a father, Francis Ford Coppola. “I just got who she was and I felt that she could get me. I thought, we have different stories, but she could understand this better than any writer because she kind of lived it in her own way.”
Yes, Priscilla is a story about a teenage girl growing into adulthood, but it’s thematically conceptual. For much of the film, we’re preoccupied with what the point of this film is. Then, towards its end, we sense Priscilla is transforming. Her make-up is subtler, suggesting she’s becoming a real character.
For much of the film, none of the characters feel real – they’re imaginary people, sometimes even dolls for playful fantasy. When Priscilla tells Elvis she wants a divorce and drives down the driveway toward the gates we feel like we’re watching her coming-of-age tale. It’s as if she’s waking from an absurdist dream that serves as a commentary on how, for a young woman of her generation, it was difficult to either have a sense of or build her own identity – to escape the patriarchal shadow of first her father, then her husband.
Did Priscilla’s trust place a burden on Coppola’s creative integrity? Or was the film a battleground between the two women? Did Priscilla decide she didn’t want literal images of her tumultuous marriage’s darker moments onscreen – a difference between the printed word and film image? Or is the film part of a pattern of behaviour to protect Elvis’ image?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, the film is a mild recrimination against an abusive artist. Coppola shows his flaws but pulls her punches, or is it Priscilla and the politics of compromise between the director, subject, and producers that create this contradictory tone?
In as much as Priscilla is a recrimination, it’s an apologetic work. It feels crafted, in part at least, from the perspective of a victim of abuse making excuses. The use of Dolly Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You”, as Priscilla drives towards the gate has some historical accuracy. On the courthouse steps after their divorce, Elvis sang the song to Priscilla.
The choice to include the song, however, is humouring Elvis’ toxicity, giving him the last word. It’s an act of women whitewashing the truth and not taking back control of the narrative. It’s a continuing trend for Priscilla to be a victim of and protect a man she may have loved, who loved her, but with whom she experienced abuse. Regardless of how much control Coppola had over the making of Priscilla, and whether the film she wanted to make was lost in the process, she too becomes a victim of Elvis’ toxic masculinity, through either Priscilla or her own implicit choices.