Sofia Coppola takes an impressionist approach to the biopic, as she adapts Priscilla Presley’s memoir ‘Elvis and Me’ in her latest film. Coppola is not out to sensationalize the couple and instead puts her razor-sharp focus on the coming-of-age story of a young woman who is suddenly thrust into the orbit of one of pop music’s biggest stars. ‘Priscilla,’ as a film, makes no concessions in its treatment of Elvis. It knows who he is, and it expects its audience to do so as well. So, all of the trappings and glamour of his popularity is left in the periphery. Images of his fame tries to creep into the frame, but Coppola keeps it away. She focuses her camera on young Priscilla Beaulieu (played with a pitch-perfect performance by Cailee Spaeny) as she meets Elvis Presley at the age of 14 and is swept off her feet by his charisma and stardom.
Coppola keeps her camera close and tight. She only lets it breathe to contextualize the immensity of some scenes – to fully impress upon the audience the isolation Priscilla must have felt being alone with Elvis’ family and entourage in Graceland – before bringing it really close to her and her intimate moments with the rock and roll giant (played by a magnetic Jacob Elordi). It is these intimate moments that is rife with meaning and evokes the uneven power dynamics within the couple.
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Elordi stands a whole 5 inches taller than the real Elvis, while Cailee Spaeny is only 5’1 (as compared to Priscilla Presley’s actual height of 5’4). The height difference on film between Elordi and Spaeny really helps visualize that tension. It amplifies the fact that Elvis was 24 when he began seeing Priscilla at 14 (though, amazingly, Elordie and Spaeny are roughly the same age). The film, following events from the book, portrays Elvis as someone who waited for her to be of age before he married her and slept with her, but the intensity of their relationship is put into question.
At 16, Elvis flew her from Germany where they first met to live with him in Graceland away from her family. The implications of this are huge but wonderfully enough, Coppola never places judgement on it. Sure, some people question it, her parents made him work for it, but never does Coppola take any form of judgement in the filmmaking. To the characters – Elvis and Priscilla – they were in love. The writer and director never shy away from the fact that she’s underage and that she was probably just as starstruck as she may have been in love and despite all his flaws (of which the film shows many), Elvis may have truly loved her.
Never does the film dwell on any of the dramatic moments – the arguments they have, the sudden outbursts leading to violence that Elvis would sometimes show, the ways by which Priscilla’s life is consumed entirely by Elvis’ being – the film gives us snapshots of these but never fully explores them. The film is working on broad strokes. ‘Priscilla’ is not out to discuss or explore Elvis and the effect of his popularity on the world and on people but pushes to put Priscilla’s life in the spotlight and how her being in his orbit has affected who she is and the decisions that she ends up making as she gets older through the film.
The movie plays out like a highlight reel, only showing the greatest hits of her memory, so to speak, that leads to her powerful decision to come into her own by the end of the film. We know or have heard of Priscilla’s story and what the film does is to create an impressionist painting that tracks particular moments in time that leads up to her eventual growth.
Grounding the whole movie, outside of Coppola’s masterful direction is Spaeny and Elordi’s arresting performance. Spaeny is at the center of it, having to play the character from 14 to 28 in the span of almost two hours. She gets all the emotional cues right and delivers a genuine performance that you cannot take your eyes off of while Elordi never tries to mimic Elvis, but he encapsulates his charisma and appeal. Coppola chose Elordi because he shares that same magnetism that Elvis Presley had and all Elordi had to do was amp it up to its highest levels.Of the many talks about Oscar snubs in this particular season, I feel that Spaeny is another performance that could have made it to the nominees list for Best Actress while Coppola could have also been considered for direction. But that’s just me. ‘Priscilla’ is not a mainstream or commercial movie. It’s an arthouse, memory piece that serves to evoke feelings and create an impression of womanhood growing at such challenging, unprecedented circumstances rather than to create an in-depth character study. It’s a masterful work that deserves a bigger audience.