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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Priscilla"

Film still of Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi in Priscilla (2023).
Priscilla, The Apartment Pictures/American Zoetrope/A24, 2023.
Film still of Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi in Priscilla (2023).


Priscilla Beaulieu was 14 years old when she met Elvis Presley, who was then 24 and the most famous musician in the world. She was a starry-eyed child, pulled into a world of material possessions and casual drug use by a man who himself never really grew up. They got married a few years later, and their relationship has been mythologized and scrutinized since, depicted both as a tragic love story and as a cautionary tale about exploitation and abuse. It’s sad either way.

Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla examines the Elvis-Priscilla courtship with the filmmaker’s trademark blend of romanticism and sadness. It’s another of her portraits of wealth as a siren song and eventual prison for young women; her poison pills always have delicate, pastel-colored shells. It’s also her best movie in a long time, and if Baz Luhrmann’s recent Elvis film was an ideal marriage of subject and director, surely there was nobody better equipped to tell Priscilla’s side of the story.

Priscilla and Elvis are played by very good up-and-coming actors, Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi, and their performances bring a lived-in vulnerability to cultural figures we think we already know. They change a lot over the course of the film, but those changes happen quietly—through subtle suggestion, through dialogue, through feeling.

There are flashes of joy and genuine affection between Priscilla and Elvis, but he is mostly absent, a voice over the phone on the other side of the country while Priscilla reads about his supposed dalliances in the tabloids. They both lead lives of repetition and isolation, even when they’re together. He looms large, but he’s also a ghost.

The film’s exacting period details are dazzling but also somewhat dangerous; Priscilla’s Aquanet-lacquered bouffants, wrinkle-free dresses and cat-eye makeup become constraints rather than accessories. She is adrift in a world of cold, cackling men, Elvis’ coterie of hangers-on a barrier she can’t penetrate.

Coppola’s films are often about the gloriously empty aesthetics of wealth, and here she shows Priscilla in a perpetual state of confinement, going from boxy military housing to the hermetically sealed environs of Graceland. It’s a spiritual sequel to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: Both films are about real young women who were ushered into worlds of impossible wealth and glamor, who were unprepared for public scrutiny, who were trapped with emotionally distant and temperamental men. The difference is that Priscilla got out.

Seeing Priscilla a year after Luhrmann’s gaudy, flashy Elvis proves a fascinating study in contrasts. The Luhrmann film saw Elvis as a born showman worn down by oppressive management and out-of-control appetites; Coppola’s film shows him as equal parts aloof and volatile, and as a man who maintained the impression of domesticity without ever really settling down.

Of course, all these seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. Elvis’s estate has disapproved of the project and refused Coppola rights to his music. But the film isn’t telling us anything earth shattering, and besides, the absence of Elvis’s music makes the movie all the more powerful: in soundtrack cues from the Ronettes, Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton, Coppola traces Priscilla’s journey from girlhood longing to grown-up self-determination. When the Graceland gates finally swing open so that Priscilla can leave, it isn’t portrayed as a moment of melodramatic liberation, but as a thing that simply happens. Because it must.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss two films that present us with characters who we think we might know, but maybe do not. The first is Elvis Presley, a central figure in Sofia Coppola’s biopic “Priscilla,” while the second is the protagonist of the award-winning French film “Anatomy of a Fall.”