' ' Cinema Romantico: Priscilla

Monday, December 11, 2023


“Priscilla” begins with its eponymous character, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), sitting at a diner counter, reading a magazine, and sipping a Coke, the camera moving in behind her. She’s at a US Air Force Base in Germany where her father is stationed, but it looks like Priscilla could be anywhere in America, and it looks like Priscilla could be any American girl. Indeed, aside from a few insert shots just before, all of which seem to occur later in the movie’s timeline, we never see the then-14-year-old Priscilla before this moment. She’s just a 14-year-old girl waiting to be molded, or perhaps groomed, evoked in an American military man asking Priscilla if she knows of Elvis, also stationed on the base, and if she’d like to come over to his where he’s living and meet the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. You know the rest of the story, though the way writer/director Sofia Coppola tells it, working from the real-life Priscilla’s book “Elvis & Me,” feels no less fresh and invigorating. It’s a movie seen specifically from Priscilla’s perspective while evoking how she, herself, was not allowed to have any perspective, a nifty trick only Sofia could so affectingly pull.

When Priscilla first meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi) at a party he’s hosting, he is costumed in sweater and slacks to make him look less like a not you-can’t-do-that-on-television rebel than an affable teen dream. And that’s how Coppola evinces it, at least at first, like a teenage fantasy, with images of Priscilla daydreaming at her school desk and walking through school hallways lost in love, or what she thinks is love. In one astonishing shot, Coppola takes advantage of Elordi’s exaggerated height compared to Spaeny by having him lean over her with one hand on the wall of his home, looking for all the world like a boyfriend and girlfriend at her locker. With accompanying pop hits of the era, it’s like Priscilla is swept up in one of those songs, though I kept thinking of a tune not featured, The Ronettes’ “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love?,” alas mellifluous as it is horrifying, Ronnie made to make the eponymous plea on Phil Spector’s behalf.

If it’s no surprise that Presley’s estate refused to grant permission for Elvis’s music given his portrayal, “Priscilla” isn’t really about Elvis’s music, anyway, his ambition and career at once weirdly present but also distant, far away beyond Graceland’s gates where omnipresent screaming girls become a reflection of what Priscilla was, of a dream that came true all wrong. Indeed, “Priscilla” becomes a kind of companion piece to Coppola’s equally great “Marie Antoinette.” Celebrities are nothing if not American royalty, which Sofia’s own “Bling Ring” suggested, and so Priscilla becomes a kind of American queen, Graceland as her Versailles, held in captivity, illustrated in a shot seeing her through a window looking out.

“Marie Antoinette,” though, was an explosion of style and extravagance, mirroring its protagonist. “Priscilla” is the opposite, a stifling of style, and certainly of expression. “Keep the fires burnin’,” Elvis says over the phone to his child bride when he’s on the road, not so much oblivious as keenly aware he’s snuffing out her fire by keeping her locked in his castle. She graduates high school, though to no real effect, is not allowed to have a job, has her fashion tastes impressed upon her by Presley, eventually becomes addicted to pills right alongside him. She settles into a zombified state, evoked in how Coppola and her editor Sarah Flack compose the movie to make it feel as if nothing is happening even as life rushes by. 

“Priscilla” also demonstrates just how much a director can – one might argue, should – sculpt a movie performance as much as the performer. That’s not to discount Spaeny. She comes across carried away in the early scenes by puppy love, evinces a haughtiness when she first moves into Graceland, and shows the emerging cracks, like coming unglued from her husband’s spiritual and philosophical ramblings. Mostly, though, she downplays to great effect, existing within Coppola’s frames, like a vacant fashion model in a vapid spread, hinted at in those brief opening shots of assorted makeup and hairstyle trinkets, costumed and posed just as the man in her life wants. That Priscilla never really has agency isn’t an oversight but the whole point, turning the end into an inversion of the end of “Marie Antoinette,” not escape but liberation, not the end but the beginning.

1 comment:

Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I love how Coppola played with the height difference between Spaeny and Elordi specifically. It's been a while now since I saw this, and I do think Coppola's direction stands out a bit more than the performances do. She was absolutely the right choice to take this on.