This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi & Ari Cohen
Rated: R (drug use and some language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minuts
I've seen five of Sofia Coppola's eight narrative feature films (“Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere” are my blind spots) and the trapped, isolated, lonely woman is an obvious recurring theme in her work. This is no doubt what attracted the writer/director to Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir Elvis and Me on which Priscilla is based. Telling the story of Priscilla's courtship with Elvis, beginning in 1959 when she was only 14 and Elvis was 24, Coppola's film very much feels like a collection of very specific instances and memories Presley recalls during the 13 years their lives crossed paths. These moments clearly left an indelible mark on what was otherwise a smitten teenager, but that would seemingly shape Presley into the woman she became; in many ways showing her a life she didn't necessarily want to lead. What makes Coppola's film so engaging are the conflicted feelings Presley experiences throughout her relationship with Elvis while the lack of any real momentum combined with a general knowledge of the events and timeline the film covers lend the film no real urgency regardless of the importance of this perspective.
In last year's Baz Luhrman-directed, Austin Butler-starring “Elvis,” the scene in which Elvis meets Priscilla for the first time occurs just over an hour into the film after which it manages to distill this courtship down into a five-minute scene making Priscilla much more brash in the process which is notable given Cailee Spaeny's portrayal is far more reserved. Priscilla herself seemed thrilled with Luhrman's biopic but is also an executive producer on this film making the gray area all the more fuzzy. I wouldn't say “Priscilla” necessarily paints Elvis in a bad light as much as it does very much a man of his own time who handled his fame in the only way that seemed reasonable given the circumstances. Coppola's interpretation certainly makes it clear Elvis could be controlling (telling his young bride what to wear and how to style her hair), quick to lose his temper at the slightest sense of resistance, and would straight-up flirt with other women right in front of Priscilla's face, but the adapted screenplay also recognizes she is this man's safe haven and as much as she desired to do things for herself, she desired to serve that purpose for him as well. Now, I know what you're thinking, and it's a strong, "Hell no!" which is completely understandable and as a parent of a nine-year-old girl who couldn't stop considering how 14 is only five years off at several points during this viewing experience, I wholeheartedly agree. That said, and as previously stated, this is the crux of the arc we're meant to invest in and in that regard, the film does its job.
Where it lost me was the lack of presenting any real core to the relationship, highlighting no real evidence of a connection so exceptional that Priscilla's presence rose above every other girl who fawned over Elvis along with the episodic nature of the pacing. We go from Germany in 1959 and the quiet, first encounters of these two strangers - one with a vast knowledge of and admiration for the other whereas Elvis had no inclination as to who Priscilla was. In fact, it kind of feels like Elvis initially only finds that aforementioned solace in Priscilla's presence because he's homesick, his mother has recently passed, and she is not only from back home, but the same region as him which proves to be what he needed at that moment in his life. On the other hand, such an experience must have been completely surreal for a 14-year-old fan who probably shouldn't have been put in this position in the first place. Priscilla's parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) find themselves in a tough spot trying to give their daughter some clemency for taking her away from her home and her friends, but despite the appeal and overwhelming charm Elvis no doubt displayed there is a part of them that had to know the kind of life they were submitting their daughter for no matter how much blowback they might receive initially. I get it, it’s the kind of once in a lifetime scenario you kind of have to see play out, but the fact of the matter is she was still far too young for them to even consider Elvis’ requests. This obviously is no fault of the film though how Priscilla herself chooses to defend/view Elvis' advances at her young age is one of the more fascinating aspects of this telling.
The second and third acts of the film essentially break down into the second and third phases of their relationship meaning Priscilla moves to Memphis while still in high school so Elvis can see her more frequently in between movie shoots and eventually their marriage which only actually lasted six years (a fact I was admittedly surprised by). Though I haven’t read Priscilla’s book I’m interested to hear how Coppola’s film compares to the line Presley walked regarding what she revealed and what she kept to herself. The film never explicitly states the first time Elvis and Priscilla had sex only that he was keen to “wait for the right time”. There are two, maybe three insert shots of Priscilla with karate instructor Mike Stone which was a known affair, but again, the film doesn’t disclose this information as much as it does suggest it. While I understand the intent of this style given Coppola feels like the type of filmmaker who might take dailies to Presley and ask her if this is what a certain event feels like in her memory it also suggests she sacrifices some of the further confliction in Priscilla’s genuine love for Elvis that is challenged by her desire to lead a life of her own, something she would never have as long as they were together. It is this lack of emphasis on the relationship itself and more the commitment in tone to memory being more of a poet than a historian that makes what we’re seeing feel if not unfair, certainly biased. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice (it’s arguably more ambitious), but by the final shot of the film I couldn’t help but feel we’d learned about as much as the film had earned … not a whole lot. All of that said, having never seen Jacob Elordi in anything prior, he is very good here.