Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Coppola paints pictures of mid-century Americana and the codes and moral shortcomings that go with it."

The inquiry into relationships between adults and teenagers is literally front and centre at this year’s New York Film Festival. In May December (Opening Night Gala selection), Todd Haynes looks at the romance of a woman in her thirties with a seventh grader, as seen 20 years later through the perspective of an actress making a film about the, by now, married couple. On theme are also Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer, and perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things (both in the Main Slate), where age of body and mind are not so easy to pinpoint. Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (based on Priscilla Presley’s book with Sandra Harmon, the Centerpiece selection), explores the machinations of courtship between Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) and his teenaged beloved, Priscilla Ann Wagner (Cailee Spaeny).

Always a wizard of texture, colour, and mood, Coppola begins the film with a mauvish carpet, a bit fluffy, but more as though the chubby childlike toes with fire-red polish were stepping on worms. Followed by closeups of cat-eye liner and hand-made lashes, white pumps, a round mirror with a big metal frame resembling the rays of the sun and a white porcelain elephant - these will be the signposts of Graceland, but not yet.

1959 at the West German Air Force base in Wiesbaden, where Presley is stationed, Priscilla, whose father is a Commander there, sits at the counter of a diner, sipping a coke, when a man approaches her to invite her to a party at Elvis’s house. It is a recruitment. She is in 9th grade and looks it. After some hesitation, her parents give permission and what follows is the first 'fashion show' of the movie. As her mother watches, Priscilla holds up several rather drab dresses and muted mud-coloured outfits. The first encounter with Elvis is delicately choreographed around glances and words. He says; “I like talking to you.” And, in order to talk more privately: ”I’ll meet you upstairs.”

She wears a choker with a heart; he has a poster of Marlon Brando in his room and a pile of love letters from his fans. He tells her about the recent death of his mother and how homesick he is for America and for Graceland, the house he had bought for mom. They kiss.

From this moment on everything changes for Priscilla, school feels like a nuisance. “Please don’t ruin my life,” she says to her concerned parents. They watch Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in the cinema and Elvis talks about his dream to study at the Actors Studio. He also gives her the first of many pills “to stay awake in class.” After his return to the US, they keep writing to each other and she follows the gossip in all the magazines.

Coppola paints pictures of mid-century Americana and the codes and moral shortcomings that go with it. There is a light touch that avoids the frantic fullness of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro and instead leaves space for us to draw our own conclusion about grooming, conventions, insecurities, and a cult of fame that only works when looking away is part of the system.

In May 1962 Elvis wants Priscilla to visit him in Memphis in the creamy, rather empty idea of a mansion he thought his mother would have liked, complete with scattered tchotchkes, such as a giant porcelain dog beside his desk, and pompous splashes of gold, all carefully chosen by production designer Tamara Deverell. Again he tells Priscilla to head upstairs in front of his group of friends. The sheer act of demanding, followed by her obedience seems to give him a power thrill that Jacob Elordi plays with the most casual nonchalance.

In Elvis’s bedroom, you can spot a tiger, a phone, and Jesus. Priscilla is ready for him in a short tulle nightgown but he says not yet and gives her a pill to make her sleep off the trip. It works more than expected. Seeing the two of them together is disturbing, not least because of the clothes choices costume designer Stacey Battat has so tellingly selected. Priscilla’s attempts to dress like the woman she imagines Elvis to want, look like drag, which shines a bright light on the performative character of identity that goes far beyond Priscilla Presley’s biography precisely because it so deeply informs it.

More pills go around. A one-shoulder teal silk gown, a sparkly brooch, a polka-dot suit wear the woman, not the other way around. She returns to Germany an obvious mess, her parents are upset, but Elvis insists on having her come and live with him and promises to enrol her in a good Catholic school. She is only 17 and follows her love.

Graceland feels like a toy box, not even a real doll’s house, because her belongings seem to be reduced to Chanel No. 5, nail polish and a white poodle puppy she was gifted to not feel lonely, while Elvis is away on a shoot. On TV adds for chiffon cake - with vanilla and a secret ingredient - signal the times we are in. The Sixties have yet to change the course of history.

A second fashion show, this one for Elvis and his male friends feels even more awkward. He says black hair would suit her and in a Vertigo makeover she becomes a brand new doll. On the outside. Go-carts and fireworks, waking up with pills, and a pistol with every gown - his world dominates everything. Priscilla cannot bring home classmates, she cannot have a job. The hollowing out proceeds with a red sports car for graduation and ever higher hair-updos, not so un-similar to another one of Coppola’s famous child brides.

Priscilla, not a bride yet, suffers unbearable boredom, Elvis’s affair with his co-star Ann-Margret (“I swear it’s over. She’s a nice girl but not for me”), and more and more violent attacks, followed by apologies. “What am I supposed to do with all this influence?” he asks in a moment of clarity. A very good question. He tries LSD and philosophy and urges Priscilla to be interested in exactly what he likes. She can’t stand it, it is driving her crazy, and Spaeny at this moment speaks so clearly for everyone who ever tried to do that.

A book burning, a tabloid fodder wedding, a pregnancy during which the father-to-be suggests “a little time apart” to spend with Nancy Sinatra, a baby girl who has her ears pierced before she can even crawl - is this “everything a woman could want?” Priscilla, the film and the woman, give a clear answer to that question.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2023
Share this with others on...
Priscilla packshot
A Priscilla Presley biopic based on her memoir Elvis And Me.
Amazon link

Director: Sofia Coppola

Writer: Sofia Coppola, based on the book by Priscilla Presley

Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Kamilla Kowal, Jorja Cadence, Emily Mitchell, Dan Beirne, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Deanna Jarvis, Ari Cohen, Luke Humphrey, Tim Post, Josette Halpert, Stephanie Moran, Gwynne Phillips, Dagmara Dominczyk

Year: 2023

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US, UK, Italy

Search database:

Related Articles:

Finding the nuances