Following Baz Luhrmann’s deliriously over-the-top 2022 film Elvis comes Sofia Coppola’s decidedly more understated Priscilla. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of Elvis both aesthetically and emotionally. If Luhrmann captures the whole lotta shakin’, Coppola is more concerned with the end of lonely street for The King’s beleaguered wife.
Two bare feet stand on the pile of a soft carpet. It is the kind of small, sensuous delight that Coppola lingers on in her films: the hardening of varnish on toenails; lying in a foetal position in your underwear; being a young woman alone in a world of sensory experience and potential danger. Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) is a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Germany where her father is serving in the US army. She is approached by a soldier who offers to chaperone her to a party being held by Elvis Presley and overcomes her parents’ initial resistance. “Why, you’re just a baby!” the 24-year-old man says, but Priscilla is soon in a daze as she finds herself courted by one of the most famous men in the world.
Coppola’s Priscilla is ultimately about the asymmetrical power relationship in their romance. Elvis (played by Australian Euphoria star Jacob Elordi) is a mass of insecurities. A young man of obvious arrested development, he pines for home and his recently deceased mama, while also opining for the audience he believes he is losing while serving his country, wincing when Priscilla tells him the young people are listening to Bobby Darrin and Fabian. In Priscilla – who has obviously been scouted by one of his pals – Elvis finds a stand in for the adoration of his young fans, a young girl who will swoon and hang on his every word and whose “spunk” will be aimed at his parents.
Despite promises of guardianship and constant chaperoning as Priscilla is whisked away, lines are soon blurred as Elvis does pretty much everything he wants while Priscilla – now transferred to Graceland – must hang around waiting for her beau to return from Hollywood and the attentions of his co-stars. Any individuality or opposition is met with the threat of violence (or, perhaps even more frightening, the withdrawal of favour), which would see her returned to her ordinary life away from the sun of Elvis’ attention. He holds back sex because it doesn’t fit in with his image of her: “Some things are sacred,” he insists. They will maintain this basically adolescent romance for seven years.
Spaeny plays Priscilla as if she’s initially living in a dream, before she realises that – under Elvis’ manipulation and the steady use of prescription medication – she’s sleepwalking through her own youth. Her coming-of-age will take place as she comes to terms with the fact that her dreamboat is becoming a nightmare. Although adapted from Priscilla Presley’s own relatively soft-soap autobiography, Coppola cleverly reveals the destructiveness behind the “Aw shucks ma’am” persona. Whether he’s gifting her handguns, bulldozing his uncle’s old house on a whim, or slinging a chair at her head for the temerity of having an opinion, the King of Rock n’ Roll is a man child whose playfulness is often linked to a barely suppressed rage; all to the sound of the yakking of his Memphis Mafia coterie.
The one gripe here is that cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who previously worked on Coppola’s The Beguiled, keeps everything so dim and mauve that a trip to Vegas comes as a blessed relief. In a sense though, this visual uncertainty means that we share with Priscilla a sense that we’re not getting the whole picture. There is quite literally a darkness at the heart of the American dream as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty