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With ‘Priscilla,’ the filmmaker builds on a career contemplating the exquisite isolation of gilded cages
November 5, 2023 at 2:09 p.m. EST
At this point in time, Priscilla Beaulieu is still a girl. Much has been made in retrospect of the age difference between Elvis and Priscilla, who was just 14 years old when she met the 24-year-old musical phenom in 1959 at his home in Germany (where he and Priscilla’s stepfather both served in the U.S. military). Coppola, who bases her film on the 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” explores this unbalanced power dynamic but doesn’t fixate on critiquing those who enable it. Their indifference is set dressing for the story of a young woman who stumbles into a dream life, only to watch it slowly become a nightmare.
Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) herself is a rather passive participant in her relationship with Elvis (Jacob Elordi), who coordinates her move to Memphis before they eventually marry. She dissociates at Graceland, caring for their young daughter as Elvis cheats on her. The detachment is typical of Coppola’s protagonists, who languish in isolation or forgettable company. As early as in her 1999 feature debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” Coppola has approached these characters with the curiosity of a documentarian, maintaining an emotional distance as she depicts the circumstances of their melancholy.
Slowly but reliably, Coppola, 52, has constructed a body of work solidifying both her style and sensibilities. She began work on “Priscilla” knowing full well that Baz Luhrmann was deep into making his own Presley film (2022’s “Elvis”), but also recognizing, as would any of her devotees, that there would be little risk of overlap. Luhrmann and Coppola may share a fascination for fame, but they exist on opposite ends of a spectrum: His indulgent style absorbs all the glitz and glamour, whereas she plants her feet outside the gilded cage. The brooding way in which “Priscilla” peers into that cage is about as Sofia Coppola as it gets.
In March, one of Coppola’s daughters with Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars posted a public TikTok for the first time. In it, 16-year-old Romy Mars films herself making pasta while grounded after she “tried to charter a helicopter from New York to Maryland on my dad’s credit card because I wanted to have dinner with my camp friend.” She says her parents banned her from having public social media accounts “because they don’t want me to be a nepotism kid,” but she got away with the since-deleted TikTok because they “are never home.” The 49-second video went viral on Twitter, attracting jokes about Romy following in the footsteps of her mother and titan of a grandfather, director Francis Ford Coppola.
Although more absurdist in style, the TikTok does hit on beats uncannily similar to those of a Sofia Coppola film. It features a young woman of abundant means, for whom a private helicopter seems a perfectly reasonable mode of transportation. Tended to by an unseen babysitter, whose goofy boyfriend appears in the video instead, the teenager channels her vague sense of loneliness — and clear boredom — into frivolity. She seems at moments to be playing a character, one considerably less morose than Priscilla and more in the vein of the restless monarch of “Marie Antoinette” (2006) or the scheming kids of “The Bling Ring” (2013).
The protagonists of Coppola’s films are privileged, but adrift. They float through her dreamy landscapes of vintage pastels or, in the contemporary-set pieces, hazy city lights. The filmmaker once stated that her “movies are not about being, but becoming.” In 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” American newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) radiates ennui while visiting Tokyo with her husband, only breaking out of the daze when she encounters a much-older movie star (Bill Murray) whose listlessness mirrors her own. In 2020’s “On the Rocks,” New York author Laura (Rashida Jones) struggles to write her latest book and wades further into self-doubt when she begins to suspect her successful businessman husband (Marlon Wayans) of infidelity.
Charlotte and Laura each strive to find purpose. Coppola contemplates what it takes for someone to learn to anchor themselves. She has said that she wondered whether “Priscilla” would too closely resemble “Marie Antoinette,” which also focused on a real-life figure (Kirsten Dunst) whose autonomy is restricted by an early marriage into wealth and prominence. Each feature explores coming of age in a heightened setting, but “Priscilla” is more consumed by the monotony of that lifestyle.
While Marie Antoinette copes with the isolation of royal living by leaning into the luxury of Versailles, Priscilla feels trapped by the close watch kept on her at Graceland, where she is immediately banned from entertaining any guests of her own. Marie Antoinette requests her towering pouf hairstyle, which she sports with her head held high. Priscilla dyes her hair black at her domineering husband’s suggestion, weighed down by the bouffant and false lashes she wears even while giving birth.
“Elvis and Me” established a complicated truth: While the real-life Priscilla Presley believes she and her former husband shared a beautiful, authentic love — she has also praised Luhrmann’s more positive picture of him — she still recognizes his controlling and manipulative nature. That Coppola was denied the rights to use Elvis’s music in “Priscilla” doesn’t end up mattering: Her film is more concerned with who he was behind the scenes. Elordi towers over Spaeny, a height difference that only accentuates the terror of his physical and emotional abuse toward his wife, who turns into a shell of herself. By Elvis’s own admission, Priscilla is “just a baby” when they meet. The celebrity decides who she will be before she can figure it out on her own.
Priscilla’s growing weariness evokes the disillusionment of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) in “Somewhere,” Coppola’s 2010 film about a divorced actor whose tween daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), arrives to stay with him at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, where he has holed up while recovering from an injured arm. Cleo stirs in Johnny a sense of wonder absent from the banality of his movie-star life. He spends his days just going through the motions, shepherded from one engagement to the next. In a striking scene, makeup artists encase the actor’s head in a layer of thick white goo that will eventually be used to create a mask. The camera lingers on Johnny for more than a minute as he sits alone, breathing deeply, invisible beneath the drying plaster.
Born into Hollywood royalty, Coppola understands how lonely and boring it can all be.
Coppola’s films are inevitably shaped by her life. Some of them pull from her experiences directly: “Lost in Translation” draws from the time she spent in Tokyo in her 20s and takes place at the Park Hyatt, where she stayed while promoting “The Virgin Suicides.” Other projects more subtly resonate but still hint at her limitations: The filmmaker omitted a Black enslaved character from her 2017 version of Civil War drama “The Beguiled,” in which she also cast Dunst in a role based on a biracial woman from Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. (Coppola defended the first decision at the time by stating, “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.”)
“Priscilla” falls somewhere in the middle. In an August interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Coppola said she expected “Elvis and Me” to be a “juicy, glamorous story” but was “struck by how much I connected with it emotionally.”
“I know from my family what it’s like to be inside a show business family,” she continued. “I know that growing up, people are looking at you in a different way. And also living in a house with my dad, this big personality, a great artist and a lot of our life revolving around that. And seeing my mom’s life, how she was trying to find her way within his, I could relate to that.”
Every Coppola film offers a lesson in perspective. She is heralded as one of the most effective storytellers to explore the inner lives of teenage girls — the sheltered Lisbon sisters of “The Virgin Suicides,” Marie Antoinette, Priscilla — and for championing the female gaze. “The Beguiled” kicks off with the inhabitants of a Virginia girls school taking in an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell), but proves to be far more interested in the lust and desire of the women who reside there than it is in his.
Coppola has sustained a career for around three decades by surprising audiences. “Marie Antoinette” offers a sympathetic portrait of a historical figure often reviled for her reputation as apathetic toward the masses, a bold choice that did, admittedly, attract a fair amount of flack. But Coppola earned points for her willingness to try something new, especially as it relates to the film’s New Romantic sensibility. The Cure and New Order figuring into the soundtrack for a film set in 18th-century France set precedent for other creatives to follow. (Think of those string covers of modern pop hits featured in Netflix’s “Bridgerton.”)
With “Priscilla,” Coppola dares to cast a shadow on the legacy of a pop culture legend. While contemporary audiences may be more willing to believe that Elvis could have been a cruel husband, Coppola challenges them not only to pity his poor wife, imprisoned by luxury, but also to empathize with her gradual recognition of her misery.
Coppola’s “Archive” also includes a snapshot of a page from an earlier draft of the “Priscilla” screenplay. By this point in the story, Priscilla already suspects that Elvis has been unfaithful but hasn’t yet confronted him. The excerpt picks up before a close-up shot of Priscilla finding a note Elvis had received from another woman. It details the end of an interaction between the couple: “He smiles at her. She smiles back, thinking she’s the one who’s got to stay on her toes.”
Coppola slashed through the second sentence in blue marker, writing in a more resolute conclusion to the scene: