Priscilla (2023)

The relationship between Priscilla and Elvis Presley is told from Priscilla’s perspective in writer-director Sofia Coppola’s dreamily subdued Priscilla.

Can’t help falling in love with you

by Chris Drew


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 1959, American 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex) lives on a German military base when she unexpectedly is invited to meet Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, Saltburn) at a party, changing her life forever and plotting the course of a tumultuous relationship, which is the focus of Coppola’s film.

Priscilla is initially surprised at being suddenly brought into the circle of the older, and already famous, singer but an attachment quickly forms as they bond over being homesick. The shy teen soon finds herself overtaken by an overwhelming crush.

Elvis gives her a watch for Christmas but in this happy moment his declaration “promise me you’ll stay the way you are now” is a foreboding sign of the power dynamic in the relationship, despite his early apparent softness.

After Elvis’ return to the US Priscilla constantly sees him in magazines – rumours about his co-stars are a constant thread – while she pines for him.

At 16 she’s delighted to be swept over to the States in first class, despite her parents’ uncertainty. Elvis, tellingly, is already reliant on pills and when he shares them with her, she’s knocked out for two days but soon finds herself in the glamorous world of Las Vegas casinos.

The following year, after a call from Elvis to her father, she’s moved to Graceland and to a new school, but when she arrives Elvis is away filming and has left her a puppy.

On his return it becomes clear that he will decide the right time for them to have sex and he chooses her hair colour, make-up and what she should wear. In a new world Priscilla is very much not in control while also being a subject of fascination and gossip at her new school.

Priscilla is on the receiving end of Elvis’ regular bursts of anger, alongside further reports of dalliances during filming, before he is then distracted by books during a spiritual phase. He decides when they will get married and the wedding photos are suitably subdued.

From there the film moves quite rapidly as the relationship turns increasingly sour, Priscilla being told that Elvis wants to take a break while she is heavily pregnant is one of many low points before she is left literally holding the baby as he heads off to concerts.

Priscilla’s development culminates in her decision to end the relationship with the film ending with a composed and more worldly experienced woman heading to live her own life.

In an acclaimed performance – receiving the Volpi Cup at Venice and a Golden Globe nomination – Spaeny is a thoroughly believable wide-eyed 14-year-old gradually becoming a more aware and knowing woman finding herself in an unexpected and suboptimal situation.

While Elordi does not look like the iconic singer, with his own good looks he brings great swagger and charisma to the role. He towers over Spaeny, helping to emphasise his increasingly menacing presence and power.

With excellent costuming and production design and tremendous make-up and hairstyling – Priscilla’s changing looks play such a vital role – it’s aesthetically pleasing and superbly crafted.

Following on the heels of Elvis, Coppola’s intimate and introspective portrait, told through Priscilla’s eyes, makes an impressive comparison piece to Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic blockbuster.

Arriving soon after the twentieth anniversary of Lost in Translation, Coppola’s eighth directorial outing fits neatly into her filmography with uncertain, and at times listless, female characters.

The critically acclaimed drama from Academy Award® winning director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola received its World Premiere in Competition at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, followed by the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

Recently Sofia Coppola and the film were longlisted for the 2024 EE BAFTA Film Awards for Director and Make Up & Hair. Jacob Elordi was nominated for the BAFTA EE Rising Star 2024 whilst Cailee Spaeny was recently nominated as Breakthrough Performer of the Year at the 2024 London Film Critics Circle Awards and was nominated for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama at the past 2024 Golden Globe Awards.

Priscilla is available on Mubi from 1 March 2024.

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