'Priscilla': Sofia Coppola Delivers a Quietly Affecting Biopic
While watching Priscilla, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, it was hard for me not to think about Baz Luhrmann's Elvis from last year. Perhaps its because that film came out so recently, but it feels strangely apropos given that most people don't think about the real Priscilla Presley without thinking of Elvis. Part of me feels that Coppola is aware of this, and that most people are going into this film with little to no knowledge of Priscilla's life or any of the details of her relationship to Elvis. In fact, despite the film bearing her name, some people might be thinking that this film will have some of the flash and excess we've come to expect from tales relating to the King of Rock and Roll. But while Elvis is a major figure in the film, this is firmly Priscilla's story, and is much calmer and realistic compared to the Luhrmann film. This isn't surprising if you are familiar with Coppola's work, and her distinct style lends itself well to bringing Priscilla Presley's life to the screen. Priscilla might not be a pure spectacle that falls in line with the typical biopic format, but it is quietly affecting, and offers up a different perspective on an iconic figure while allowing Priscilla Presley to reclaim her story.
14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) lives with her family in Germany, where her father is stationed in the military. One day, she is invited to a party where Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) is said to be present. At this point in time, Presley is in the Army, and spends most of his nights partying. Priscilla meets Elvis, who is immediately interested in her. As time goes on, the two date and eventually marry. The film details their many years together, and shows both the love between them, and the hardships Priscilla experienced while with Elvis.
Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker that I generally like, but her work is a tad hit or miss for me. To be fair, the films I would classify as misses are still pretty decent, but I feel like her style poses some limitations for some of her films. Thankfully, this film worked for me quite well, and it is truly one of her better efforts. She puts us directly in Priscilla's point of view for the entire film, and does so in such a simple, yet efficient way. For much of the front half, there is a sense of romanticism, and she evokes the feeling of being young and in love so well through the visuals and how the scenes are written and edited. Along the way, we see the red flags in their relationship, but Coppola moves past them quickly in the earlier moments, bringing to mind the early stages of relationships where we may recognize some potential issues, but choose to brush them aside for the moment. But as the film goes on, and we see Priscilla and Elvis's relationship develop, the red flags are impossible to ignore, and add to the tension so well. The film also makes great use of montages, and each of them are deployed so well. Coppola is such a great visual storyteller, and this film serves as a great reminder of this. She has an almost gentle approach to the film, which makes it feel rather realistic, and the way she allows the audience to step into Priscilla's head and experience it from her perspective is quite skillful, and among some of her best direction to date.
The script does pose some issues, however, as it feels a bit more perfunctory overall. Its general structure is quite good, and the characterization of Priscilla and Elvis is solid as well, but the rest of it feels a bit standard. Make no mistake, there are some great moments, especially in how the scenes between Priscilla and Elvis are written, but the rest of it is a little iffy. My biggest complaint is that it kind of goes in circles near the end, and feels a bit drawn out. Thankfully, it builds to a great ending, which honestly might be one of the best endings of the year, and finishes out strong. It's not a bad script by any means, but I kind of wish there was a little more to it.
The visuals do pick up some of the slack though, as Phillipe Le Sourd's cinematography washes the film in a shadowy, yet vibrant aesthetic, and contributes heavily to what Coppola seems to be hinting at in regards to Priscilla's life with Elvis. Obviously, the 60s and 70s are have a more colorful connotation to them, and the film utilizes this, but it also washes some of the color out to give a sense that things are not as great as they seem for the Presleys. The production design and costuming is also excellent, as is the make-up and hairstyling. It really captures the lavishness of their lives, as well as recall iconic looks for both Priscilla and Elvis. It all feels rather authentic, which in turn enhances the action on screen. The film itself looks gorgeous, and truly surprised me with just how much it excels on this front.
Considering that Austin Butler gave such a phenomenal turn as Elvis just last year, it puts Jacob Elordi in a bit of a tough spot. Butler's take is a hard act to follow, but Elordi does a pretty good job. While Butler has a lot more of the mannerisms down, Elordi has more of the look of Elvis going for him. Elordi is slightly more grounded, and has an air of mystery about him that works wonderfully in the context of the film. There are some moments where he feels slightly reminiscent of Jack White's portrayal of Elvis in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but he does a great job for the most part. He's at his best when he is opposite Cailee Spaeny in the scenes where its just the two of them, and he makes his more questionable actions feel more natural. A lesser actor might play up the more reprehensible parts of the character, but Elordi plays these moments with a sense of honesty, which allows them to have a bigger impact. It's not a perfect performance necessarily, but it is definitely an admirable one.
Cailee Spaeny is absolutely incredible as Priscilla, and gives a wonderfully understated performance. The characterization falls in line with many of Coppola's other protagonists, but it feels so true to the real Priscilla Presley, and uses Spaeny's natural screen presence very well. It may be a quiet performance, but the way she responds to what is going on around her is so powerful, and she truly is the heart and soul of the film. It's hard not to feel for her all throughout the film, and so much of it comes from how fully Spaeny embodies Priscilla as a character. She truly feels so human in every scene in the film, which makes it so easy to connect with her. I can see this being a performance that gets Spaeny a ton of awards buzz, and deservedly so. She does fantastic work here, and it is one of the year's best breakthrough performances.
Priscilla acts as a coming-of-age tale and a re-telling of American history that perfectly utilizes Sofia Coppola's distinct voice. In many ways, Priscilla Presley's story feels well-suited for Coppola's sensibilities, and she translates it to the screen quite beautifully. Some viewers might be put off by how intimate and quiet it is, but those familiar with Coppola's work might be more receptive to it. It's also fascinating to look at it as a response to Luhrmann's Elvis, as this is a calmer, more honest perspective on some of the same events of that film. It side-steps the glamour and decadence of Elvis's life, and instead focuses on the reality of Priscilla's life while she was with him. It may not be a perfect film, but it is certainly a unique and intriguing one, and allows us to get into Priscilla's head and see things from her point of view. It is a rather striking film, both visually and intellectually, and allows her story to be told genuinely and gracefully.