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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Priscilla // Film Review

“It’s either me or a career, baby. When I call, I need you to be here for me.”

Very early in Priscilla, the future Mrs Presley - aged 15 - plays an Elvis record in her bedroom, smitten after just a few brief encounters with the older man. We don’t hear this record, nor indeed do we hear any of Elvis’ music throughout the film. This is in part due to a licensing issue - the estate of Elvis Presley has publicly condemned the film and denied it music copyright - but it also serves as a neat microcosm for the project as a whole. Priscilla is about the grooming of its titular character at the hands of a far more powerful man, but it never pushes the same seduction onto its audience. Sofia Coppola’s latest is a ferocious and pointed attack at the King of Rock, scaled back to expose what could be romantic in the moment as an evil sin in abstract.

Central to achieving this is of course Cailee Spaeny’s performance as Elvis’ soon-to-be caged housewife. Rather than recast Priscilla at any point she ages up from fourteen up to twenty-seven (the duration of their marriage), Spaeny is kept in the part with virtually no prosthetics or maturing makeup, to the effect that she spends most of the film still the image of a child in the arms of her superstar boyfriend-then-husband (Jacob Elordi).

Consequently, the onus is on Spaeny to convey her gradual wisening up to the man who would just as soon call himself her owner as he would her husband, always looking lost in her bouffant hair and thickening eye-shadow, but gradually growing wiser to the toxicity of the man who once swept her off her feet, and learning how best to play his ego. Spaeny is exemplary here, playing her early starry-eyed disbelief that the Elvis could like her just as well as her later cynicism, hating herself for having fallen into such a foolish trap.

Even if Priscilla is slow to realise her predicament, the world around her is not. Coppola orchestrates crowd scenes very deliberately to this effect; there is a constant stream of extras staring in the back of frames, while every other supporting character is seen at some time to whisper a variation of: “she’s just a little girl”. This extends to the design of the film too. Early sequences block Spaeny in the same frame as Elvis’ many adoring teenage fans, rendering her indistinguishable among those who should be her peers. Even Priscilla’s costuming early on - all pastel creams and pinks to begin with - is a match for the furniture at Graceland. Priscilla is not a subtle film, never risking the chance that we could forget Priscilla’s status as a prisoner first, partner second.

The elephant in the room through this extended critique is of course Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, in which Austin Butler portrayed Elvis as every bit the same victim to Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as Priscilla is to Elvis here. Notably, the Colonel never appears in Priscilla, though he is acknowledged, and even present unheard on the other end of phone lines throughout the film. Often, Priscilla will make a suggestion to Elvis which goes ignored, only to be acted upon once the omnipotent Colonel gives him the same order. Watching the films back-to-back only cements Priscilla’s position at the very bottom of the pecking order.

That isn’t the only reason why these films could work as a double bill, indeed are far more similar than one might expect. From a craft perspective, the outrageous excess of Luhrmann’s film is used to portray Elvis’ life as a whirlwind the likes of which he can’t quite keep up with has a lot in common with how Priscilla regards his bride, with its blindingly bright grade, pop song covers and more glamorous clothes than any closet could bear.

The pair also share a challenge as they approach their third act endgames. Put simply, both films come on so strong that by the time their crescendos hit a climax, there isn’t a whole lot left to say. In Priscilla, the mythology of Elvis has been so thoroughly dismantled by the hour mark that there is little left to show of their private lives. What we get are more scenes of Elvis leaning on his cigarette-puffing buddies instead of his pregnant wife and threatening to send her home to her parents, yet outside of Priscilla’s ultimate decision to divorce him, there is little that Coppola can do to give a sense of escalation to proceedings. Elvis is always a boogeyman, never sympathetic and rarely pitiful, which means the relationship hinges entirely on Priscilla’s choice of moment to leave him. It results in some slight burnout towards the film’s end, despite being just over 100 minutes long, though when the moment comes for Priscilla’s inevitable turn, Spaeny rises to the occasion with a bravely quiet performance of defiance.

Priscilla is a neat jewel in the crown of Sofia Coppola’s filmography. It is yet another story of an imbalanced relationship with push-and-pull dynamics, though in this case she has gone for the throat of perhaps the most extreme case in pop culture history. The results are those of relentless and unforgiving anger; Coppola’s fury at the beloved status of ‘Elvis The Icon’ is palpable, while Spaeny’s performance of a girl’s blissful ignorance melting into fear and spite makes for a downright horrifying accompaniment. If the film is repetitive at times, it is only because Coppola’s tunnel-vision allows for no stray threads or subplots, just a ruthlessly direct condemnation of who was once the most loved man in the world, and an offered shoulder of support for the woman who survived him.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.


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