Review: Priscilla (Sofia Coppola)

“A profoundly moving and often quite provocative character drama that provides a very different perspective on a story we all thought we knew so well.”

As a culture we have become predisposed to celebrating certain figures while not paying sufficient tribute to the people who helped them get to a specific point in their career. It is all related to the hackneyed adage “behind every great man, there is a great woman”, which is usually cited in terms of empowering the hardworking women who stood behind some of history’s most iconic figures. Elvis Presley is undeniably one of the most instantly recognizable people in 20th-century history, someone who transcended the world of entertainment and became a cultural icon the likes of which we have rarely seen. Yet, his life was plagued by personal issues that were never factored into the more surface-level examinations of his career and which were kept away from the adoring public, in fear of even the slightest hint that Elvis was not nearly as perfect as his carefully curated image would suggest. Nearly half a century since his passing we’ve seen an increase in projects that aim to pull back the curtain on his life, showing his trials and tribulations and how he handled various personal challenges. One person who was not even vaguely interested in mythologizing Elvis or even celebrating him in any significant way was Sofia Coppola, who instead chose to explore his legacy through the eyes of someone who was perhaps closer to the man during his peak than just about anyone else: his devoted wife Priscilla, with whom he spent several years of his life, many of which coincided with the height of his fame. Coppola takes the autobiographical Elvis and Me and adapts it into Priscilla, which explores the life of the titular character from her first encounter with Elvis in the late 1950s while her family is stationed at a military outpost in Germany, covering their relationship that ended when she made the difficult decision to walk away from the marriage. A hauntingly beautiful and profoundly striking exploration of one woman’s journey to realize her potential, even if it meant uprooting her entire life, which was always built in the shadow of a man she loved but not enough to become inextricably tied to his legacy since her own was just as important.

Coppola is a filmmaker who has always been driven to tell specific stories based on her interests, and has consistently refused to choose a particular avenue in terms of filmmaking style. There are definitely shared themes and creative flourishes that carry over between her films, since she is certainly qualified to be considered an auteur in terms of her directorial approach, but she essentially goes for stories that she finds personally fascinating, knowing that they will appeal to like-minded audiences. Priscilla is quite close to Marie Antoinette, a film that many consider to be Coppola’s masterpiece, at least in terms of it being the film that allowed her to show that she wasn’t only a great writer (which she established with The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation), but also a tremendous visual storyteller. The correlations are clear – not only are both films about women who were the companions of famous men, but the films share the quality of being explorations of femininity in times when the empowerment of women was starkly different from how it is today. Priscilla has many layers, but it can be categorized as a coming-of-age story, albeit not one that follows traditions. We first meet the titular character as an insecure, shy schoolgirl, which is quite a stark contrast to the glamorous, confident socialite we came to know based on her media appearances and general legacy. Coppola traces this journey, exploring roughly fifteen years in Priscilla’s life, that crucial period between her first encounter with the man who would become her husband and change the course of her life, and the moment she decided to pursue her own path, away from his abusive behaviour and selfish attempts to put himself first. Arguably, taking a figure as beloved and iconic as Elvis and showing him to be not nearly as charismatic as he seemed in public is quite a daring approach, and few could have captured it quite as vividly as Coppola. She works closely with the original text (as well as having Priscilla Presley herself involved in the production to an extent), to tell this striking story and give a voice to someone who has historically been overshadowed by a marriage that may have only been one portion of her life but continues to be a defining factor in her personal and private life.

One of the most intriguing qualities of Coppola’s work is that her films aren’t entirely built around the actors, but she nonetheless extracts exceptional performances from her collaborators, who often find themselves doing some of their very best work under her direction. Some have criticized several of her films for being more focused on the atmosphere than developing the characters, but this is a very surface-level assessment of her works, which are fantastic character-based pieces that just take a different approach. Her challenge in Priscilla was finding the right actors for the two central roles – unlike many biographical films, which are littered with characters, this one is a chamber drama focused on two people; everyone else exists merely on the periphery, despite being quite good in their limited time on screen. Cailee Spaeny has been acting for a few years but has not made too much of an impression, primarily since she took smaller roles that didn’t showcase her talents as much as she deserved. This film proves to be the very definition of a breakthrough opportunity, and from her first moment on screen it is clear that Spaeny has the potential to become one of her generation’s brightest young talents. Playing this part was certainly not an easy task – there are details in this performance that needed someone who could fully immerse herself in the character since even the slightest moment of inauthenticity would derail a film that is constructed as a tightly-wound character study. Jacob Elordi has the unenviable task of playing Elvis, which is especially daunting considering we recently saw Austin Butler play the same role in what many consider to be the definitive account of his career. Elordi’s task is almost as difficult as that of his co-star, since not only does he need to bring this iconic character to life, but he also needs to play him in such a way that we can understand that he was starkly different behind closed doors, but without making him a one-dimensional villain lacking any depth. The two leads do exceptionally well and work closely with Coppola to create distinct versions of these people that feel authentic and contribute to the overall tone of the film, which is certainly not the traditional cradle-to-grave biography we have come to expect.

Coppola is not interested in the conventional methods of telling a story, and while she does craft films that are accessible and not at all difficult to comprehend, she approaches the process of telling certain stories with a degree of complexity that we don’t often find. Priscilla is focused on telling the story of its titular protagonist, but in a way that is quite different from what we’d expect – it does follow a relatively clear linear timeline, starting with her meeting Elvis and ending with her driving away from Graceland, but this is only to give the film structure and allow the director to make a few more interesting choices in terms of how the story is delivered. Fame is a strange experience, and Coppola decides to filter Priscilla’s story through an almost mystical lens, showing her journey to becoming the companion of one of the most famous entertainers in history through scattered moments in their lives. We are plunged into an almost dreamlike state as we weave our way through their relationship, which is shown in episodic vignettes tied together by the exploration of the titular character’s psychological state and how her perception of the world begins to shift the more she sees the other side of being famous. Priscilla is a film driven much more by the mood than it is the storyline – we understand everything that transpires on screen (since Coppola isn’t interested in abstraction when it comes to how the story progresses), but it’s the atmosphere that draws us in and makes the film so complex and poignant. The emotions are genuine and it feels like we are accompanying Priscilla on this metaphysical journey, peering voyeuristically into the most private moments of her marriage, as well as getting insights into her experiences during this time. Priscilla is one of the closest examples of a film feeling like a genuine autobiography in terms of the tone – it is internal and intimate, and we are given unfurnished insights into the mind of the protagonist, who is navigating a variety of challenges while trying to make sense of the world that surrounds her. This leads to a powerful film that has many layers, each one beautifully put in place by a director who understands the importance of atmosphere in telling such a story.

Many of her detractors have suggested that Coppola’s films are mainly formed through the same set of techniques – atmospheric moments strung together by eclectic soundtracks and vibrant colours. Yet, somehow it always tends to work exceptionally well, because Coppola is nothing if not genuinely gifted, and her efforts to bring this story to life, like most of her previous films, feel compelling and deeply moving. She has never been one to resort to excess when it isn’t necessary; instead she focuses on bringing every moment to life by exploring the deeper meaning and how it relates to Priscilla’s growing sense of independence and her desire to forge her own path, which was a dangerous endeavour for any woman, especially one who stood in the public eye as the companion (and later wife) of one of the most inarguably famous men in history. There is much to be said about how this film navigates some of the more challenging material – any attempt to take a figure as beloved as Elvis and present them as being not nearly as admirable as the culture would like us to think is a risk, but this film manages to do it exceptionally well, primarily because it never alludes to everything being factual. It constructs itself as an adaptation of a book, rather than a historical drama. Naturally, we have to give credence to the events we see depicted since there would be very little reason for Priscilla to embellish to the point where it becomes unrealistic, but this is all through her perspective and shows us a very different side of a cultural icon who still commands a lot of respect in contemporary culture. Priscilla is quite a daring film, and through its atmospheric exploration of this marriage and its examination of the internal quandaries of someone who has often been sidelined and not given the respect she deserves, we find that it manages to shed fascinating insights into Priscilla Presley’s life, becoming a profoundly moving and often quite provocative character drama that provides a very different perspective on a story we all thought we knew so well.