image credit: A24

Movie Review: Priscilla (2023) ***

“Priscilla” is a movie following the courtship and marriage of its titular character to Elvis Presley, beginning as a hazy teenage dream of romance with a pop star and ending with disillusionment and divorce.

This is my first Sophia Coppola movie, but most everything I have to say about “Priscilla” seems to be normal for her films. As a claustrophobic, shallow confectionary, “Priscilla” is as much aesthetic as plot. Interiority is inferred rather than explicit. We are tightly limited to Priscilla’s perspective, and as the one who is left behind at Graceland while Elvis lives his life, there is little opportunity to guess at greater context unless you know what’s going on.

I’m not an Elvis fan. I’m too young to have any opinion about his legacy outside of the weird fact he’s a major element of Lilo & Stitch. I couldn’t even get through the first few minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” So I’m coming at this with virtually nothing.

I expect that people with more cultural context will find more meaning in the film. As a standalone, Priscilla really doesn’t have a lot going on outside of its aesthetic.

The beginning of the movie immerses us with 14-year-old Priscilla as she becomes immersed in a world-famous man with enormous influence who is a decade her senior. We can make guesses about why a famous pop star would want her specifically (versus any other fawning teenage girl), but there is so little context on Priscilla as a person that I initially assumed it was a weird sex thing.

Except Elvis declines to have sex with Priscilla until she is older; it appears that he mostly wants a cute little “pure” doll who will do whatever he wants, and that tarnishing her would make him lose interest. They have a playful sexual relationship for a period of time but he is distracted by older, more experienced women. In a typical virgin/whore dichotomy, Elvis again loses sexual interest in Priscilla once she bears their child.

Ultimately it feels that Elvis mostly wants a staff member who will put up with his shit while fulfilling his idealized role of girlfriend; reaching the point where he “must” marry and procreate isn’t really what he wanted, but life is moving on, and Priscilla is growing up.

Once Coppola has made her point about Elvis’s initially predatory relationship to Priscilla, Coppola seems to lose interest in the subject matter, too. As Priscilla becomes more of an individual with agency, the movie speeds along at a faster clip, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Coppola doesn’t care all that much about Priscilla once she’s no longer a more easily manipulated teenager.

As such, this feels like a really aesthetic way of saying “your hero was a shitty human,” without putting all that much work into the main character whose long-lashed eyes we are always looking through. While searching around for more context on the movie, feeling like I was missing important details to make it more meaningful, I was struck by how powerful Priscilla-the-human seemed to be — how willful and intentional she must have been in order to live the life she has lead. We get glimpses of this from Cailee Spaeny’s performance, but Coppola doesn’t want to hang out with a Priscilla who is breaking free of her cage.

The fact so many people are in denial about Elvis’s abusive, controlling behaviors toward Priscilla makes me *want* to five-star this in a bite-my-thumb-at-you type maneuver. People are offended by the bare facts involved because facts make Elvis look bad. As the “Priscilla” movie is based on her autobiography “Elvis & Me,” it’s wholly fair for her to be frank about the conditions of a relationship where she was groomed and dehumanized, even when she also seems to have sympathy for the man himself.

This movie gave me the clear impression of a cosseted man whose flaws were never challenged or given the attention needed to heal; he just turned toward addiction and sycophants, like many people with power do.

I don’t even mean Elvis levels of power. This is far from the only imbalanced relationship in the world, and it’s pretty normal for people who have done well at something to find themselves trapped in the amber of their own success, paralyzed by enablers. What I’m saying is that it’s completely human to demand exactly what you want and become ruined when you get it. It’s extremely easy to believe this portrayal when it’s extremely common for women to get smacked around by a man who doesn’t know any coping mechanism outside the veneer of control.

There’s no reason to think Elvis was worse than this, either. Priscilla and Elvis apparently remained good friends until the end of his life, and Elvis seemed to need genuine friends. He’s an icon of stunted man-child nonsense that generations of women have indulged.

I wish that Sophia Coppola had cared more about Priscilla the human outside the time of her life where she was most confined. I wanted to jump through the screen and pummel the adults allowing Priscilla to be obviously groomed for the first half of the movie, but I kinda wanted to ask Coppola “what the fuck?” at her evident disinterest in the complicated adult who developed from those circumstances.

It’s a good movie, though – based on my standards of good movie, where a creator sets out to tell a particular story, and I believe Coppola accomplished her intent. It’s skillful and beautiful and kinda boring. After a quick read about Coppola’s other movies, and what has become defined as her style, I almost wonder if Coppola herself isn’t trapped by her successes too, incapable of moving beyond one type of heroine in one type of setting. Most creators have a particular story they want to tell. This one could have used bolstering from someone with more of an interest in the entirety of the woman.

(image credit: A24)

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