Film Review: Priscilla

Words: Francesca Beaumont
Wednesday 03 January 2024
reading time: min, words

Sofia Coppola's new film is a stylish exploration between Priscilla and Elvis Presley's relationship... 


Through the veneer of a pastel colour palette Sofia Coppola’s latest release Priscilla recontextualizes the smokescreen glamour and charm of Elvis Presley’s life from the perspective of a wife, pushed and positioned onto the periphery of his fame. A superbly directed piece of modern modern cinema that works best as a stylised indictment of the domestic situation of women in midwest America.

Operating from a distinctly delicate camera lens, with decorative visual imagery the oeuvre of Sofia Coppola has always succeeded in its dedication to conveying an aestheticised image of femininity that is simultaneously sultry and saddening. Masking the vagaries of a teenage heartbreak under the veneer of Midwest Americana, Coppola is able to stay true to her typical art form, cultivating an ample aesthetic atmosphere for a teenager to become enmeshed in the lifestyle of an older man, who’s influence and grandiosity quickly domineer over every aspect of her life. 

The style over substance debate is a constant amongst film fans. If a film is too stylised then it lacks substance, if a film is too dedicated to substance then it becomes a heavy slough to get through. But across the Coppola oeuvre: style is the substance.  

Opening in a montage of lipstick kissed love letters, freshly painted red toenails, pink lipstick, The Ramones’ Baby I Love You playing atop, we are immediately acquainted with Priscilla as a woman mediated by stylised iconography; the dramatic black eye makeup, the perfectly puffed up 60’S silhouette. Both the substance of the film and substance of her character are tethered to her quintessentially effeminate form.

The focus point of the plot lies in the power imbalance between Elvis and Priscilla. But in a film with a substance so intimately acquainted with its style, our attention must be directed toward aesthetics if we are to unearth the substance in its totality. The costuming is nothing short of phenomenal, with Priscilla’s identity scaffolded around her extensive wardrobe. Beginning in cutesy patterned floor-length dresses, and girlish hairstyles at her fathers army base in Frankfurt and transitioning into the silky pinkish decadence of 50’s femininity. The evolution of Priscilla's style reflects her passage from doting school girl to confined wife. 

One may assume that the transition from cute to chic costuming is representative of the new age of emancipation for Priscilla Beaulieu, graduating into a life of playful passivity and aestheticised allure. But paradoxically, the debut into ‘grown-up’ attire emphasises Priscilla’s emerging inability to act autonomously. 

“Change your hair. Darker, it’ll make your eyes stand out more. And no patterns, it does nothing for your frame.” As young women it is natural to modulate aspects of your appearance to appease and alleviate the pressure of teenagedom but the immediate conformity to the will of her older boyfriend documents how swiftly she becomes a mere extension of Elvis’ utility. 

The substance Elvis Presley bore in the world was completely stylised; the hair, the outfits, the amped up southern charm. Presleys’ stardom was composed by style, and in turn he believed he has the right to reify his preconceived image of the perfect woman through Priscilla’s mindlessly doting compliance. Her style is a reflection of his substance.

Coppola is able to situate both Priscilla and Elvis as byproducts of their environment and not innately flawed people

Priscilla is a pet inside the walls of Elvis’ home Graceland. The sprawling shots agonising by the telephone, confining herself to servitude, making herself as little as possible stand in sharp juxtaposition to Elvis, who is only ever presented in  the totality of his image. The way the two oscillate through space is almost entirely opposite. Where Elvis sprawls, Priscilla cowers.

Firmly focused on using style to convey substance, the casting deliberately accentuates the couples spatial difference. With Elordi as Elvis at  6.5ft and Spaeny as Priscilla at 5.1, an odd visual imbalance plays out on screen. One that not only emphasises the ten year age gap between the two, but how differently they operate in the world. 

Priscilla is essentially bound up by immanence and impermanence. An immanence Elvis is permanently abstracted from. She is rooted in her obligation to romantic domesticity. Unable to exercise her agency in the free-flowing way her partner can. Whilst her entrapment is certainly emphasised by her femininity, it is born from the youthful naivete that brought the two together. 

A common critique of Coppola’s filmmaking is that her lens is too limited. Positioned from the echo chamber of her own lived experience, a woman similar to her to Coppola, is a woman worth paying homage to. Whilst this is a valid critique on the privilege that imbues the film industry, it is where Coppola is at her directorial best, excelling in story building based from perspectives she can intimately relate. 

This also is the reason for the characterisation of Elvis being able to avoid the fame-focused egoist approach. Coppola can contextualise the bubble of self-aggrandising fame and privilege that Elvis operates from. In understanding the ways in which fame grants one the ability to disregard the feelings of those around them as less important, Coppola is able to situate both Priscilla and Elvis as byproducts of their environment and not innately flawed people.

The stylised colour palettes that characterise the Coppola’s film cannon are nothing short of beautiful, particularly when shot on 35mm, but Sofia’s soundscape should not be so quickly glossed over. With artists from Alice Coltrane to Dolly Parton, the soundtrack that settles over the pastel beauty of Priscilla’s world clarifies her dreamy perspective in all of its style and substance.

Adapted from the 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, the film encapsulates the experience of agonising over the inactivity of a man who knows how to use you but not how to value you. Priscilla recontextualizes the glamour and charm of the Presley marriage and frames it from the confinement of being a young girl conflating gifts, materialism and elegance with genuine affection.

Priscilla is showing at Broadway cinema on January 5th

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