Venice 2023 review: Priscilla (Sofia Coppola)

Priscilla is a film with a great story but an incapacity to tell it.”

It was 1959 when Priscilla Presley, then still Beaulieu, met an already famous Elvis at an army base in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her stepfather, a US Air Force Captain stationed at the same base the Army’s most famous member called his temporary home, has trepidations when his 14-year-old daughter is invited to a party at the off-base home of a star that is ten years her senior, but he eventually gives in to her pleas. To Priscilla’s surprise her idol is a soft-spoken, almost shy young man who confesses his loneliness to her. Two kindred spirits find each other, and the two fall in love, something nobody seems to have qualms about despite the age difference. Even Priscilla moving to Memphis, first temporarily on a holiday trip, then permanently under the condition she finishes high school, doesn’t meet much opposition from her parents. It seems like a Cinderella fairy tale, but it becomes the story of a little bird trapped in a golden cage called Graceland. Consistently defined as the ‘girlfriend of’, later ‘wife of’, Priscilla is bereft of any agency and forced into a life in service of her famous partner’s career; a partner whose violent temper she has to endure from time to time, not to mention his infidelities. As she closes the doors of Graceland one last time a decade after their first meeting, now as old as he was when she first met him and having gained a daughter but lost an illusion, she finally has the chance to carve out a life of her own.

Priscilla Presley’s highly unusual coming-of-age story forms the basis for Sofia Coppola’s examination of life in an unbalanced relationship, a schizophrenic double life that was doomed to fail sooner or later. Unfortunately Coppola has shaved off all the rough edges of the story, making her Priscilla a repetitive slog about a girl whose dream turns into somewhat of a nightmare as she gets trapped inside the confines set by the stardom of her partner. Obviously an audience brings their own morals into the theatre, so any 24-year-old courting a girl ten years younger will be regarded as creepy even coming from one of music history’s biggest stars, but Priscilla initially portrays Elvis as a tender young man with insecurities and suffering from the loneliness that comes with fame. Priscilla’s later unhappiness is rooted in the boundaries set by those surrounding Elvis in order to protect his fame and image, yet seldom by the man himself. The film doesn’t spare him, but his outbursts are infrequent and don’t really go beyond him being an ass, with one violent exception. The problem is that Priscilla quickly moves past these incidents: Elvis acts boorish, Elvis sheepishly apologizes, the story moves forward, rinse and repeat. The picture the film paints of the teenage heartthrob is definitely not a positive one, especially not when it comes to his obvious philandering (although he keeps denying it), but it is also not outright negative and shows him as a conflicted soul who searches for his own identity and who has his own fears and doubts, which he tries to push away with sleeping pills.

Priscilla‘s focus obviously lies on its titular character and the denied chance to define herself, but it also shows her life is not one of total misery. In many instances she joins in on the fun of Elvis and his entourage and enjoys life in the orbit of the most famous person in the world. There is no doubting the truth of it all (Priscilla Presley has strongly endorsed the film, so one has to believe the story accurately reflects her years with Elvis), but the issue is that Priscilla does very little with a premise that at its core is deeply fascinating and unique. The duality of Priscilla’s life, Catholic high school student by day and partying with Elvis by night, as well as her loneliness despite having everything are all suggested, but the film rushes through ten years at an uneven pace and is both visually and narratively flaccid. It is a seemingly endless string of scenes of Priscilla looking unhappy and Elvis screwing up and then trying to make it right. One doesn’t have to invent history to insert a few fireworks into the portrayal of a real person, but Priscilla simply drones on without oscillating between highs and lows (to be fair, the flat performances by its stars Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi don’t help). When a film has to rely so much on an audience bringing its own empathy to the table because the film can’t elicit it, something is wrong. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is one thing, but ‘Suggest, don’t show’ is a bridge too far. Priscilla is a film with a great story but an incapacity to tell it well.

(c) Image copyright: Philippe Le Sourd