The devil is in the details. Pink-nailed toes scrunching on a pink carpet; a packet of false eyelashes; piles of chips in a Vegas casino; the pills. Always the pills: squeezed in a palm that opens to reveal its little white prize; lined up in bottles on the bedside table; slipped into a pocket on the way to school. “Maybe the pills are too much,” ventures Priscilla Beaulieu to her boyfriend Elvis Presley, after one of his flares of temper where she just manages to dodge his fist. “I have doctors looking after me,” he growls. “I don’t need a second opinion.”
Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, based on Priscilla Presley’s book Elvis and Me and in competition at the Venice Film Festival, doesn’t pull any fancy tricks with timelines or frames of reference; it is a straightforwardly linear retelling of her romance with the King, beginning with the party where she met him in West Germany and ending on the day she left their marriage. Biopics, especially biopics that never deviate from the facts of a life, often feel plodding. Elvis Presley’s story, moreover, has been told often enough; most people know the bare bones of the Presley story. Told from his former wife’s point of view, however, it becomes another story altogether.
And it is told by Coppola, whose stylistic pizzazz overcomes the dull sense that we know exactly what is going to happen. Those details – the objects seen in close-up, the carefully evoked shadowy interiors of houses where the curtains are always closed against the sun, the costumes that show the teenage Priscilla trussed in ball gowns, like a little girl playing dress-up with her mother’s wardrobe – are like an additional narrative rippling across the facts we already know.
Returning to those facts, however, they feel disquieting in a way they may not have done at the time. Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) is 24 and doing his Army service in West Germany when he meets Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny). She is in ninth grade, living on the U.S. military base. We meet her parents. They are strict and unsurprisingly reluctant to let her go to a party at the home of a famous heartthrob. When said heartthrob has his friend – the entertainment officer on the base – call to say he wants to see her again, they ask the question any of us would: what does he want with her? Then we see how his winning Southern ways turn their heads; how soon she was seeing him every evening he could and, when his service in Germany is over, how they let her go to stay at Graceland. The following year, she moves to Graceland for good; Elvis promises to send her to a good school and make sure she does her homework.
As portrayed here, the young Priscilla was demure, pliable and virginal. Presley tells her father he likes talking to her. She barely talks back. What does she have to say, after all? “How’s my little one?” he asks on the phone when she is still back in West Germany, as if she were a pet. We see them together in several scenes before Coppola surprises us with how little she actually is: Spaeny barely reaches Elordi’s chest.
It is a damning view of a man and – eventually – a marriage. He sends Priscilla out shopping for clothes and the men around him – there are always men around him – gather to approve or reject the results. Plain colors, he insists; a small woman can’t wear prints. She must dye her hair black. She can’t work, because she must be there when he calls. That’s what he needs in a woman. What he doesn’t need, apparently, is what her parents would reasonably have feared. He lies on his vast bed with her and lays down one his many rules: they must not get carried away. Sex is less attractive to him, clearly, than the control he can exert by withholding it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Coppola has been at her best when observing the workings of fame, affluence and excess, not trying to skewer or accuse anyone but simply registering what she sees.
The strength of her films is that seems to see everything. As a film, Priscilla feels slight; there are no revelations, no showdowns, no retrospective assessments of what was really going on here or how it reflected the wider world. There is just this view of Priscilla drawing cat’s-eye flicks with her black eyeliner, that monogrammed rug decked out with musical notes, that bed – usually shot from Elvis’s side – where he spends most of his life when he is at home. Small things, but Coppola finds the meaning in them.
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Release date: October 27, 2023
Director-screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Dominczyk
Running time: 1 hr 46 min