By Thomas M. Puhr.
A portrait of how the celebrity machine thrives on packaging and preserving its subjects as doll-like children who are denied the luxury of developing discernible inner selves.”
The opening chords from Alice Coltrane’s “Going Home” accompany an overhead shot of two pristinely pedicured feet creeping along a pink shag carpet. This introduction to Priscilla Presley, the subject of Sofia Coppola’s new feature, is doubly fitting: a nod to a filmmaker’s and her subject’s parallel journeys toward self-actualization under the aegides of hugely influential male artists. Like those porcelain feet, the auteur’s latest sneaks up on you, beginning as a straightforward bio pic before morphing into something far more sly. It is a portrait of how the celebrity machine thrives on packaging and preserving its subjects as doll-like children who are denied the luxury of developing discernible inner selves.
We see Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny, who disappears into the role) alone – as a homesick Army brat in 1959 Germany – for all of ten seconds before she’s accosted by Terry West (Luke Humphrey), who invites her to a party at Elvis’ place. The King (a laconic, subdued Jacob Elordi) misses American girls, you see, and she is just his type. Coppola seems to understand better than most the seductive allure of the good life he offers: the easy access to drugs, the spur-of-the-moment jaunts to Vegas, the jealous women conspicuously whispering behind your back. In short order, Priscilla is proclaiming her total love and devotion to her suitor. When he returns to the States, she waits and takes to heart his dictum to stay just the way she is – that is to say, as a child; she’s 15 when they meet – until they are reunited. When she gets that long-awaited call to join him in Graceland, there’s no question that she’ll go. Not even Priscilla’s overbearing military father stands a chance against the tidal force that was early ’60s Elvis.
This is where Priscilla could have devolved into moralistic finger-wagging. But rather than offering an easy-to-swallow, clear-cut dichotomy between victim and victimizer, Coppola takes a more nuanced approach. To be clear, she’s not interested in justifying Elvis’ predatory behavior; she does, however, understand it as a misdirected lashing out against his own exploitation. His efforts to control her body and mind – he enrolls her in a “good Catholic school”; admonishes her for wanting to wear patterned fabrics, which so obviously clash with her figure; and has her hair dyed and fitted a bone-straight jet black – mirror his team’s efforts to dictate his. In a moment of heartbreaking emotional resonance, he seeks Priscilla’s approval when he expresses how silly he feels wearing the (tellingly) black jumpsuit his team has chosen for a big TV special. It’s the perfect distillation of the schoolyard bully himself being the target of ignored abuse at home.
Whereas Priscilla is given the impossible task of both staying young forever and immediately maturing well beyond her years (she’s scolded for “putting on a show” for the paparazzi when she plays with a puppy on their front lawn), Elvis is coddled into thinking he’ll always just be one of the boys. After he throws a hissy fit (when, oh when, will the powers that be give him a decent song to sing?) and flings a chair dangerously close to Priscilla’s head, his posse looks the other way. This gaggle of fawning hangers-on – all men – follows him everywhere, at the ready for an impromptu game of wrestling or touch football. Like a group of preteens playing cowboy with cap guns, they saunter around Graceland with custom-made handguns ridiculously tucked into their pants fronts.
During such moments, we realize that Elvis is a glorified man child taking out his frustrations on the easiest moving target: Priscilla, whom he has cut off from both her peers and family. When he dabbles in mysticism, a frustrated Priscilla implores him to stop reading from that damn Life of a Yogi book and have sex with her already (he maintains a steadfastly chaste relationship with her for much of the film; a sign, perhaps, of an underlying shame on his part). He ignores her desperate requests for intimacy (she seems to learn more about his desires from the teen magazines she continues to read – awash with images of him canoodling with Ann Margret – than she does from actual time spent with him) but disposes of the books, dramatically tossing them in a bonfire outside their home, as soon as an unseen Colonel calls up and says to drop the spiritual crap. Priscilla, meanwhile, toughens in ways her husband doesn’t, perhaps can’t; when she goes into labor with Lisa, she stoically applies fake eyelashes for her public debut as a mother while the father-to-be – offscreen, frantic – prepares for the hospital.
Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd render these emotional arcs in gauzy, pastel images; the film looks and feels like half-forgotten Polaroids left in a shoebox under a bed. And while they include a number of money shots – most notably a slow zoom out from Priscilla on a balcony, her body adorned by out-of-focus, foregrounded blue flowers: an elegant echo of a similar tableau from 2010’s Somewhere – the two display a sense of visual looseness through their frequent incorporation of handheld camerawork. As with On the Rocks (2020), they inject their dreamy wistfulness with a much-needed shot of humor. One visual gag traces the increasingly oversized tour buses that come lumbering through Graceland’s prison-like front gates. Elsewhere, Priscilla’s mascara-stained face greeting her exasperated parents at an airport after a sleepless weekend in Vegas got a big laugh from my audience. But Coppola has never been one for potshots; such moments are rooted in her heroine’s relatable desire to be understood and loved.
Some may take issue with Coppola’s decision to give Elvis almost as much of a spotlight as she does her titular subject. But the fact that you can’t tell the latter’s story outside the overwhelming presence of the former is partly the point. As Priscilla pulls out of Graceland to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” we struggle to discern who this woman is, or where she will go now that she’s separated. This climax may at first ring false: a weirdly muted exit that fails to summon any feelings of catharsis (the inevitable dissolution of their marriage feels far from a clear-cut triumph, as the above song choice makes all too clear). But it’s fitting that she remain something of a cipher; having lived for so long under such a domineering persona, she never got the chance to experience those teenage years of self-discovery. Even so, driving past those fan-packed gates is at least a step in the right direction, one toward no longer defining oneself through others’ hungry eyes.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.