By Aaron Isenstein

Sofia Coppola Strips Back the Story of Elvis and Priscilla to a Fragile Piece of Art

“I Must Get My Soul Back From You; I Am Killing My Flesh Without It” - Sylvia Plath

Recherché is the only word that comes to mind when I reminisce about Sofia Coppola’s latest film: a creation of delicate refinement and elegance that makes its rare scenes of intensity all the more effective. 

Sofia Coppola is a masterful director, and that fact has never been more evident than in her latest outing. Every shot she creates in Priscilla is not just purposeful but meaningful. Her direction becomes its own character, gracefully allowing the viewer to enter the world of Priscilla Presley. Our other point of entry is watching Priscilla herself, with each of her microexpressions and gestures alluding to the pained woman we see before us. I dislike referring to this as “the performance given by Cailee Spaeny”, because it never feels like acting to me. Spaeny fully embodies Priscilla to an uncomfortable level, and it’s a revelatory achievement that continues to linger with me. Yet I struggle to describe her work in this. Part of me wants to call it transcendent? After all, it’s not easy to portray a character from the ages of 14 to 30. But Spaeny does so with such a grace that I truly haven’t seen from a performance in a while. Usually, when one actor is portraying such drastic age differences, it comes across as jarring or awkward. Somehow, Spaeny never has that problem. She looks 14 when she’s 14 and she looks 30 when she’s 30, even without the drastic makeup that most biopics seem to rely on. Spaeny balances being both subtle and unmistakably overt, knowing exactly when to be which. There’s almost a switch in her that’s activated depending on how she’s approaching Elvis: is she a mild-mannered child or finally beginning to stand up for herself?

The idea of Priscilla may not be novel, but it is nonetheless important. Whilst Luhrmann turned Elvis into a 3 hour spectacle, Coppola turned him into a person. Priscilla is no mere biopic, it is the story of a woman. The story of women. As expected with Coppola, the Presleys are a vehicle for her themes. She tells a universally relatable story for any woman ever manipulated and harmed in a relationship while still helping Priscilla tell her own story.

This film’s narrative framing raised some obnoxious, unwarranted comments like: “So her entire life revolved around Elvis?” But I think this criticism ignores a larger point about Priscilla: she was never given a choice. She was never allowed to be anything outside of Elvis. As much as this is Spaeny’s movie, Jacob Elordi’s Elvis is omnipresent. He’s always lurking, and when he’s not berating or using Priscilla onscreen, he’s usually manipulating her offscreen. Elvis’s presence suffocates her, yet she cannot ever be free of him because he’s all she’s ever known. Elvis had to be Priscilla’s world, because every moment of her adulthood was centered on him. He was a star, and all she could do was orbit around him.

It’s no surprise that Elvis’s estate wants to censor all of his negative attributes; as a result, Coppola was unable to use any of Elvis’s music. Even though it’s unintentional, the effect of having an “Elvis movie” without a single song of his is a potent one. By stripping Elvis of Elvis, you’re no longer bombarded with how legendary Elvis is and how many iconic songs he has. Instead, you’re left with a more authentic, brutal viewing of who this person truly was. And who was Elvis, truly? A predator. 

Every theme Coppola attempts is supported by simultaneously lovely and depressing production design. The lavish sets are met with a sense of isolation that truly heightens every emotion Coppola wants you to feel. This is also present within her frames, as her skillful choices to use one-shots or two-shots make every scene more important. 

I am utterly in awe at how brilliant and emotionally resonant Priscilla managed to be. For such a quiet and delicate film, it has refused to leave my mind since I first saw it.