Priscilla Is Yet Another Sad Princess Tale From Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla, finds Elvis’s young bride bored and lonely in her life of luxury. But like Coppola’s other films in this subgenre, it’s all about the costumes and accoutrements.

Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley in Priscilla. (A24, 2023)

Priscilla is peak Sofia Coppola. For those who admire her films this will be terrific news. For the rest of us who have the patience to sit through it, it’s an exercise in astonishment, knowing that as usual Coppola will get all kinds of credit for feminist stances and important social commentary and insightful portrayals when what she’s really interested in is high-fashion clothing, and accessories, and posh furniture, and fancy collectable bric-a-brac, and all the other consumer goods rich people can buy to adorn their states of ennui and glamorous lassitude.

The source material for the film, Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, seems to be ideal Coppola material. In interviews, Coppola talks about what a big impression the memoir made on her, especially the account of her teenage years:

I was just so interested in Priscilla’s story and her perspective on what it all felt like to grow up as a teenager in Graceland. She was going through all the stages of young womanhood in such an amplified world — kinda similar to Marie Antoinette.

And indeed that’s the most interminably drawn-out part of the film, with many, many scenes showing achingly young Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) dressed up in a dyed-black bouffant and various elaborately accessorized outfits picked out for her by the control-freak Elvis (Jacob Elordi), wandering from room to room in Graceland with nothing to do and no one to talk to. You can’t help but wonder why, over the years, Priscilla didn’t get something to do, considering that Elvis was away making movies or touring for months at a time. But Coppola isn’t really interested in Priscilla having ideas, or pursuits, or ambitions, or anything. The film ends as twenty-seven-old Priscilla finally leaves Elvis, still looking seventeen and only notably changed in having returned to her natural brown hair color.

We never learn what Priscilla Presley made of her life once she left Elvis — it’s never even hinted at. You’d never know she actually did some impressive things with her life. (As well as some off-the-wall things, like joining the Church of Scientology, that were as wacky as some of Elvis’s spiritual pursuits.) In real life, Priscilla Presley remained close to Elvis postbreakup —after their divorce was granted, they left the courtroom holding hands. That’s something the film certainly doesn’t indicate, favoring instead a series of scenes conveying the impression that Priscilla is escaping the vampire’s castle of blacked-out windows and late-stage drug addiction and the threat of Elvis’s abuses, just in time to save herself.

And after Elvis’s death, and then Vernon Presley’s (Elvis’s father), Priscilla was the one who took the lead in putting the fading Presley fortunes back on track, overseeing the opening up Graceland as a popular tourist destination, and in general whipping the family finances back into shape. And obviously, it was Priscilla raising Lisa Marie. Priscilla then went on to have an acting career, the highlight of which was her surprisingly deft comic turn in the riotous Naked Gun film franchise, costarring with Leslie Nielson and in no way dragging down his go-for-broke slapstick hilarity. That’s not at all an easy thing, and it really points to someone with a fabulous sense of humor and natural performing abilities.

Coppola’s focus is far narrower. Her film begins in 1959 when Priscilla first meets the world-famous singer Elvis Presley. Her father is an army officer serving in Germany where Private Presley is also stationed. She’s a shy fourteen-year-old and Elvis, at age twenty-four — though it seems he always remains an emotional teenager himself — is immediately smitten. And so the terribly creepy relationship begins over the far-too-mild objections of Priscilla’s parents.

It’s unfortunate, given the film’s clear aim to represent this relationship in terms of the contemporary awareness of the horrors of “grooming,” that it adopts such a weirdly prurient point of view. The narrative is arranged to build tension around the moments of sexual transgression, to keep the audience always wondering through interludes of kissing, “Will the statutory rape occur now? Now? Now?”

When in fact, as the film shows, it’s due to Elvis’s own old-fashioned ideas about the sacredness of marriage. It’s Priscilla who gets more and more impatient after years of deferred sexual intercourse, waiting for the wedding night when she turns eighteen. This is long after they’ve been sharing a bed at Graceland, where she lives from the age of sixteen.

“What about my desires?” she says, in a brief moment of retaliation against Elvis’s obsessive control over their every interaction, and repeated squelching of her attempts to consummate their relationship.

“We can do other stuff,” Elvis consoles her.

It’s such a bizarre relationship, obviously, and so well known to anyone who knows anything about Elvis Presley, that if it were any other filmmaker, you’d really have to wonder why Coppola is so interested in Priscilla Presley’s perspective. Certainly the late Lisa Marie Presley wondered why, in a highly-publicized pair of emails she sent to Coppola shortly before her death about the Priscilla script she hated, claiming not to recognize in it either her father or her mother’s idea of her father.

There’s an effort in the film not to portray any complicating elements of Priscilla’s inner life, or her contextual experiences. In the scene when Priscilla leaves Elvis, we see her fervently hugging the women who presumably spent the most time with her — Elvis’s grandmother “Dodger,” his housekeeper, and one of the women who works in his home office. But we don’t know these women — we’ve barely seen them beyond their first introduction to Priscilla. Neither are Elvis’s notorious gang of down-home male cronies who essentially live in Graceland to indulge every rowdy whim of the “King of Rock and Roll,” and therefore must’ve become Priscilla’s close companions as well. The closest you get to any individualizing is that one of the gang is shorter and squatter than the others and smokes all the time.

Vernon Presley is briefly portrayed as a mean, scraggy old man obsessed with overspending at Graceland. There’s no context for his behavior as far as the rural Southern poverty of the pre-fame Presley clan. Priscilla might not have understood any of that at age sixteen, but would surely have developed an inkling about it by age twenty-seven.

But because it’s a Sofia Coppola film, it’s useless ponder any of the complicating factors like generational or regional history. This is, after all, a woman who made a film set in the deep South during the Civil War, The Beguiled, that had no black people in it. When asked about that in interviews, she had a pat explanation: “They left.”

For a sense of what Coppola is interested in, here’s film critic Anthony Lane making the case for what’s good about Coppola films in general and Priscilla in particular:

To point out that “Priscilla” is superficial, even more so than Coppola’s other films, is no derogation, because surfaces are her subject. She examines the skin of the observable world without presuming to seek the flesh beneath, and this latest work is an agglomeration of things — purchases, ornaments, and textures.

Though I have to point out, if all Priscilla Presley is shown to be is a play of surfaces like painted toenails sinking into shag carpeting, and the incredible and distracting number of costume changes charting her progress through courtship, marriage, childbirth, and breakup, she’s already a thing among things in this film. Priscilla’s gradual rebellion against Elvis’s control can be inferred when she’s shown wearing a large-print minidress and matching hat, because Elvis doesn’t like to see her in large prints.

Wonderful things can be done with the obsessive study of surfaces, obviously — directors Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, for example, make whole careers out of that. But they were interested in the complex meanings conveyed by the surfaces and the impact of them on people’s inner lives and relationships. In Coppola films, surfaces — as Lane puts it, “purchases, ornaments, and textures” — play like an end in themselves, as one big, mildly kinetic Vogue shoot.

Take, for instance, the shiny handguns that match the outfits — each one a gift from gun-nut Elvis and laid out carefully on a matching, color-coordinated gown. They’re perfect Coppola details, because she goes no further with them beyond showing us these uncomfortably beautiful accessories. What did it feel like to be a teenager routinely all dressed up in fancy eveningwear and packing a pistol? Did she carry a gun in a little beaded bag, or in a specially designed hidden holster, or a heavily lined pocket? Was she weirded out by it? Or did her military family make her so accustomed to guns she thought nothing of it? Did she enjoy it, find it exciting and empowering, or silly and inconvenient? Did she ever draw on anybody, and if so, why?

And the pills being doled out to Priscilla from the very beginning — what about those? Did it numb her to the crazier aspects of her own life, or did it heighten the weirdness? Was she generally as high as a kite — or as high as Elvis, rather? Did she also get addicted, and if so, how did she avoid his killing level of addiction? We get no sense of any of that. The one time we see Elvis and Priscilla get high together on LSD, Coppola can come up with nothing more interesting to suggest about what it was like than washing the scene with colors, turquoise and pink and maroon.

And mind you, they’re living in Graceland, one big drug trip of a house famous for its wild decor dictated by Elvis’s preferences, full of saturated reds and golds and purples, with whole rooms done floor to ceiling in maddening, boldly colored, busy patterns. We see almost none of that. The sickly pink shag carpeting at the beginning of Priscilla is as wild as it gets. Judging by this film, the whole house is done in posh but bland off-whites and beiges.

But really, at this point in Coppola’s career, there’s no use railing against her Sad Princess cinema. Coppola’s references in interviews to her own 2006 film Marie Antoinette indicate that indeed she is on familiar ground in Priscilla. Since at least Lost in Translation (2003) she’s been drawn to these updated princess narratives about rich girls and young women leading ultraluxe lives but wandering through them alone and melancholy because their love lives suck and they can’t connect. They’re always trapped and gazing wanly out of fancy hotel windows, or castle windows, or mansion windows, or limousine windows, waiting for some sign of rescue.

Maybe Coppola could cap her nearly quarter-century career with an adaptation of Rapunzel, all about the princess stuck in the tower, perpetually posed in a window, waiting for someone to ask her to let down her hair.