venice 2023

Sofia Coppola’s Elvis Movie Brings Priscilla Presley to Tears

Photo: A24

As so many of her movies are, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is about a young woman languishing in an elegant trap laid by a man in her life who’s in a position of power. In Marie Antoinette, it is Versailles, in The Virgin Suicides it is the authoritarian suburban home, and in Lost in Translation it is a sky-high Tokyo hotel. In Coppola’s eighth feature, which is based on executive producer Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, and premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, that trap is Elvis’s orbit and, eventually, Graceland itself.

“Why, you’re just a baby,” Elvis (Jacob Elordi) drawls upon meeting 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) at a friend’s apartment in Germany — he’s stationed there with the army, and so is her father. He’s grieving over his mother’s death, and she’s bored and lonely. He’d thought, from across the room, that she was a little bit older — a junior, maybe a senior in high school. But there’s an undercurrent of delight in his voice when he realizes she’s just a freshman. Priscilla rolls her eyes. “Thanks,” she says. He tells her he likes her spunk, then stands up and walks over to the piano, leading the whole party in a singalong, swigging whiskey as he winks in her direction.

Minutes later, they’re upstairs kissing in his room (nothing more, at least for a while — Elvis is drawn to her virginal innocence), and soon they’re going to the movies, out to dinner, out to parties. Priscilla fights her baffled parents (“Why you?” asks her mother, confused as to why the international superstar is interested in Priscilla and not the millions of age-appropriate women throwing themselves at him) for the right to see him, explaining that he “trusts” her, and for some reason they begrudgingly allow it. She yawns through her classes during the day and lives every 1960s-era teenage girl’s fantasy at night.

Before Elvis goes back to America a few months later, he asks her to “promise me you’ll stay the way you are” — unspoiled, a vessel of purity. She agrees, and he abandons her as she finishes the rest of high school in a dreamy, Virgin Suicides–y daze, penning endless love letters, moonily wandering the graying halls of her school and home, quite literally tearing the years off of the calendar until one day, when she’s 17, he calls out of the blue and whisks her off to Graceland to live with him. There, Priscilla’s innocent teenage dream slowly curdles into a muted waking nightmare of emotional abuse, manipulation, and loneliness.

Did we need another Elvis movie so soon after Baz Luhrrrman’s bombastic entry into the genre just last year? No, but also, this isn’t one. Where Elvis verges on hagiography, placing most of the blame for Elvis’s darkening behavior on those around him, Priscilla is exclusively concerned with the perspective of its young protagonist. We see Elvis only as she did, sometimes charming, loving, seductive, and beautiful, other times moody, controlling, lying, and popping pills. We don’t see him perform, really, except for briefly from behind, and we don’t hear any of his original music — in part, that’s because his estate hates the movie, yet it also makes sense as a creative choice.

“I remember Priscilla’s manager saying, ‘The Elvis fans are not going to like certain things,’” Coppola said in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “And I was like, ‘I’m not making it for them.’”

The director is uninterested in taking any obvious stance on the film’s central relationship, which might upset some viewers — there are no canted angles or tense music cues or concerned-best-friend characters to indicate that Something Bad Is Happening. Though Elvis’s house is full of friends and family and staff and handlers (he’s always surrounded by a fan-boyish cabal) and Priscilla attends a Catholic school full of nuns, nobody except Priscilla’s parents question Elvis, or one another, about what today would definitely be considered a grooming situation. They’re all just tickled to be part of his world — even the nuns, who take flirty photos with Elvis at Priscilla’s graduation. Nobody speaks up in the film because that’s not what happened in real life.

But the narrative details in Coppola’s movie underscore the complicated, murky, and ultimately creepy-as-fuck nature of the story. When they spend their first night together in the film, Elvis hands Priscilla a pill to help her sleep, and she doesn’t wake up for two days. He becomes enraged with her during a playful pillow fight, accusing her of fighting like a man, hitting her harshly with his pillow, but when she runs off to the bathroom, sobbing, he switches on the charm, calling her “little one” and telling her he’d never hurt her on purpose. He goes off to shoot movies in Hollywood and doesn’t call while Priscilla pages through tabloid stories about his blatant on-set affairs, then comes home and refuses to sleep with her, even well after she turns 18 and despite her openly expressed desire for him. She questions his behavior, and he threatens to send her back to her parents, forcing her to pack a suitcase as he watches, then gathering her into his arms as she sobs. When they get married and finally have sex, he loses interest in her entirely. Nine months later, she’s pregnant with Lisa-Marie at 22 years old. “I’m scared,” she says to Elvis, her eyes filling with tears. “I want a baby. It’s just so soon. What about all of our plans?”

As dark as it all is, Coppola still finds plenty of room for beauty in Priscilla. It’s a movie about a teenage girl, after all, growing up in the age of the Beatles and massive beehives. Obsessed as ever with the tactile ephemera of girlhood, Coppola visually keeps things lush and light with gauzy shots of Priscilla carefully shaping her cat-eye, placing on her lashes, tapping her long nails against vintage magazines, spraying her hair to high heaven. The costumes are gorgeous: fitted tea-length skirts, glamorous evening gowns, and a requisite shopping montage, punctuated by Elvis telling Priscilla she shouldn’t wear prints (as things between them continue to devolve, she’ll start to wear printed dresses to assert her agency). One scene shows Priscilla gently laying out matching handguns, gifted to her by Elvis, for each of her outfits — a bleakly comic touch.

At the press conference for the film on Monday, Coppola laughed when she was asked why she keeps returning to the subject of girlhood: “I don’t know why I keep coming back to it. Hopefully, I’ll grow up soon.”

Priscilla herself does grow up, albeit slowly. During a particularly shitty moment in their marriage, Priscilla takes Lisa Marie to Los Angeles, where we see her for the first time blossoming as the creator of her own destiny, laughing at dinner parties with friends, taking karate, flirting. Ultimately, she leaves Elvis to, as she puts it, begin her own life — which has, of course, now taken her to the Venice Film Festival. The real Presley attended the Priscilla press conference in Italy, notably watching from the audience instead of taking a spot on the dais alongside Coppola and the cast.

The conference itself was strange to sit through. One journalist asked Coppola how, as a “woman and a mother yourself,” she navigated telling Presley’s story and made making it “accessible for a modern audience” without “bizarrely [turning people] off?” Coppola replied vaguely. “I really tried to stay in her point of view,” she said. “One of the things that’s great about her book is it puts you in her shoes and you’re seeing from her point of view. I can go back to being that age and remembering a crush on an older guy and a rock star. I really tried to make the film from her point of view so you could experience her story along with her. That’s what I love about films, is being able to experience the story.”

Another journalist asked her if the “dark fairy tale” was a feminist story, and Coppola replied, “No, to me it’s a human story.” She added, “I wanted to show both sides, the reality of the romance and the illusion.”

“I think the most impressive thing to me about the story is the scale of this love and the power of this love,” Elordi said when asked about the difficulty of playing Elvis in this retelling. “The fact that, to this day, even though he’s not here, when you see Priscilla and talk to her, you can still feel the love for Elvis. It’s true and it’s undying, and that to me is beautiful.”

It’s possible their reticence to publicly criticize the central relationship was due to the literal presence of Presley in the room, who, at the end of the conference, took the mic to praise the film (“Sofia did an amazing job”) and clarify her own recollections, which skewed surprisingly positive. “It was very difficult for my parents to understand that Elvis would be so interested in me and why,” she said. “I was more of a listener. Elvis would pour his heart out to me in every way in Germany: his fears, his hopes, the loss of his mother, which he never, ever got over. I was the person who really, really sat there to listen and to comfort him. That was really our connection, even though I was 14 … I was older in life than in numbers.”

As for their sexual dynamic, she explained, “People think that was the attraction — it was sex. Not at all. I never had sex with him. He was very kind, very soft, very loving, but he also respected the fact I was only 14 years old. We were more in mind and thought, and that was our relationship … We built a relationship, and that relationship went on until, yes, I left, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love him. He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle that was so difficult for me, and I think any woman can relate to that, but it didn’t mar our relationship. We still remained very close, and of course, we had our daughter, and I made sure that he saw her all the time. It was like we never left each other, so I want to make that clear.”

At the film premiere itself, Presley was visibly moved, wiping tears from her face as the audience stood and applauded for seven minutes. Later that night, at an after-party hosted by A24 on a nearby island, I heard her talking about how sensitive she found the film to be and how she was in awe of what Coppola had achieved. She was surrounded, as the Priscilla character often is in the film, by a bunch of fan-boyish older men. The difference was this time, they were there to see her.

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Sofia Coppola’s Elvis Film Brings Priscilla Presley to Tears