When Priscilla Beaulieu says her new boyfriend, Elvis Presley, “needs me,” it sounds like she’s been fed a line by a pop idol who must want for nothing. But Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) doesn’t condescend to her by suggesting she’s lost and gone astray: as she becomes the object of courtship other fans only hear about in his songs, her self-possession gives the film its inner strength. Tracing the relationship from Priscilla’s point of view (drawing on her memoir Elvis and Me), the rock-steady movie follows the pair from their bonding in Germany, where Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla’s father are stationed in the U.S. military, to life behind the gates of Graceland. Coppola’s tender cool turns out to be a perfect match for a story that in anyone else’s hands might have dropped into the groove of Elvisography or filigreeing Graceland grandeur. It cruises along methodically, as if Baz Luhrmann’s perpetual-motion biopic never happened.
Priscilla enjoys the beauty of being with Elvis (though he tells her what to wear and to dye her hair), and puts up with his Graceland crew of good ol’ boys. But her husband predictably proves a fly-by-night partner, away touring for music or movies, or sleeping in all day at home, which is prime material for Coppola, American poet laureate of boredom and stasis. What really comes to the fore is Priscilla’s sexual frustration: she’s neglected while he’s out of it or engaged in tabloid-ready flings (e.g., with co-star Ann-Margret on Viva Las Vegas). The movie’s hottest scene isn’t sex but when they’re taking polaroids of each other in bed.
The film’s level tone makes it all the more jarring when Elvis gets physically aggressive toward Priscilla, though increasingly he becomes a pill-addled shadow of himself offstage. Spaeny won the Best Actress award at Venice, where the movie premiered, tackling a role that develops from a composed 14-year-old Army brat to a woman searching for her own path as a romantic idyll fades away. (Elordi’s remarkably good at keeping Elvis from hogging limelight, slowly making the legend more of a vampiric bummer.) Coppola reportedly did not get approval to use (most of?) Elvis’s music, but no matter: her choices are typically tasteful, starting with a Ramones cover of “Baby I Love You.” In Coppola’s hands this is all funny, sad, both not what you might not expect and exactly what feels right.
Priscilla screened as the Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival, its North American premiere. It opens Thursday, October 26 in select theaters, including Angelika Film Center and AMC Lincoln Square 13 in New York.