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Priscilla (2023) Review

As soon as I saw the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s newest film, I knew it was going to be wildly different from last year’s Elvis-praising offering by Baz Luhrmann. While the latter only passingly mentioned how 24-year-old Elvis courted a 14-year-old girl, this movie places us directly in that child’s perspective. What follows is a dark, heavy, and magnificently executed delve into themes of grooming, abuse, and gender roles. Based on Priscilla’s memoir, with Priscilla herself serving as a producer for this project, Coppola once again touts her interest and talent in rendering female perspectives onscreen. With her characteristically stylish visuals, she shows us a woman stuck between societal expectations and her own fantasies. Despite its many strengths, there were a lot of issues with how this film approached its titular character.

I’ve seen some reviews call this ‘another empty-headed biopic from Sofia Coppola,’ and can’t help but cringe at the way in which they’d describe this movie. To me, the director’s thematic interests are overwhelmingly clear in this film, but not in a way that feels heavy-handed. She shows the outrageous situation for what it is, including scenes where Priscilla struggles with high school classwork before going home to a husband who can’t stop cheating on her. If a critic doesn’t see that this film explores the way she was groomed and abused by one of the most famous men in the world—echoing how Coppola’s other works dive into asymmetrical power relations between the genders—then I honestly wonder if that critic is worth their salt. If they think such heavy topics can be qualified as ‘empty-headed,’ then that’s even worse. These surface-level ‘analyses’ of the filmmaker’s work reek of the sexism she’s faced since beginning her directorial career, with most of these shallow readings being focused on the visuals.

Much like Wes Anderson, Coppola’s become synonymous with the visual language she employs in her films. Full of soft light, pastel colors, and dreamy camera movement, it’s easy for lazy critics to think this is style for its own sake, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Much like Anderson, her eye-popping aesthetic, when mixed with the heavy content of the script itself, creates a contrast that shows the ugliness at the heart of patriarchy and the nuclear family, the horror buried beneath suburban fantasies and aspirations. Failure to recognize this, to me, reeks of the dismissive condescension she similarly faced for Marie-Antoinette (2006). While still operating within the same aesthetic that’s made her movies so beautifully heartbreaking, this time Coppola seems to have improved on a tried-and-true recipe. The lighting is still soft, but there’s a lot more shadow throughout this film, adding a contrast that brings an ominous tone to each scene. It’s closer to the lighting you’d see in a horror movie. As Elvis kisses her, there’s no question that what we’re watching is wrong in the creepiest way. Casting (and acting) also do a lot to add this element of danger.

After learning about Jacob Elordi’s casting, I was initially skeptical to say the least. So, I don’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I left the theater thinking he was a perfect choice. Along with capturing the cadence of Elvis’ speech patterns, he brings the toxicity needed to show a side of ‘The King’ that’s hardly been explored on a platform this big. Through Elordi’s performance, we see just how manipulative Elvis was, how quick he was to take advantage of social capital and cajole his wife into abiding his every whim. When placed beside Cailee Spaeny’s interpretation of Priscilla, a malicious magic is created. While this isn’t Spaeny’s first time in a major role, it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen her shine so brightly. Infusing her character with a tender subtlety, she gives off an innocence that plays perfectly against Elordi’s hedonistic sociopathy. As her character develops, she gains agency and discovers her sense of self; I just wish the writing had left more room for this.

During their de facto separation, we see her start to learn who she is as a person. She goes out with friends, breaking the isolation Elvis kept her trapped behind in Graceland’s gilded gates; she even learns karate. However, these aspects of her personality could have been explored way more deeply. As is, they seem more like obligatory nods to the fact that Priscilla was a nuanced human being with a life outside of her relationship; but because these scenes only add up to two-ish minutes of the film’s 1hr50min runtime, it ultimately falls a little flat. By the time credits roll, we still don’t know who she is as a daughter, a mom, a friend. Maybe this is because she herself doesn’t know and is only able to find out after leaving her abusive relationship—but it’s one thing for a character to not know who they are, and another thing for the audience to be kept in the dark. Despite these shortcomings, Coppola’s script still manages to contain a good amount of nuance.

It’s clear that Priscilla’s so married to the idea of being married that she willingly looks past a lot of red flags, but the movie never sways into apologia. The film’s logic, established through its editing and use of close-ups, directs our sympathies toward her. That being said, I found it interesting that the final edit includes a sequence where Elvis is forced by his agent to abandon his literary/spiritual interests, eventually burning his books. It added a layer of humanity to his character that prevented him from feeling like a cardboard cutout.

While its small blind spots are glaring, this still is a powerful movie. Coppola’s trademark aesthetics have been upgraded to capture the literal darkness at the heart of this story. When coupled with the great acting and character-centered writing, it’s a movie that’s much stronger than most critics are giving it credit for. As I mentioned, this has been a recurring problem for this director’s films; which in turn seems to justify her oeuvre’s obsession with patriarchal systems refusing to recognize female voices. If you watch one movie this weekend, I hope it’s this one. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more! I'll be posting more thoughts from AFF this week, so there's never been a better time to join!


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