At the conclusion of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, she writes that Elvis “was, and remains, the greatest influence in my life.” Priscilla’s formative years with the King of Rock and Roll are what constitute much of her plainspoken yet captivating prose: meeting Elvis at a US Air Force base in Germany when she was only 14, wedding when she was 22, birthing their daughter Lisa Marie, and weathering their subsequent divorce after six years of marriage. It is almost impossible to understand or imagine the contours of Priscilla’s life outside of her relationship to Elvis, so prevalent was he in shaping every facet of her public persona, from her jet black beehive to her iconic liquid eyeliner to her lack of professional prospects, save keeping house in Graceland and being available at his beck and call.
Director Sofia Coppola’s most recent feature film, Priscilla (2023), adapted from Beaulieu Presley’s aforementioned book, similarly showcases Elvis’s (Jacob Elordi) magnetizing pull for Priscilla (played by an assured and understated Cailee Spaeny). The film is a faithful adaptation, lifting dialogue directly from Presley’s memoir and following chronological events more or less exactly as she described them. When Priscilla Presley writes about her first conversations with Elvis, she notes, “It was a lot to expect an impressionable 14-year-old to understand, but I tried.” In the film, Priscilla’s dialogue during their first meeting is sparse, allowing the “impressionable” young girl to soak in her surroundings as the camera lingers on her inquisitive, steady gaze.
Yet, Presley’s earnest aside—“but I tried”—underscores the extraordinary imbalance of power between the two, an imbalance that Coppola is not interested in engaging with at the expense of her highly stylized mise-en-scene. Coppola’s acute focus on clothes, makeup, hair, and period specific props distills both the potency of Elvis and Priscilla’s passion, as well as Elvis’s predisposition to violent outbursts and popping Dexedrine. After exiting the theater, I don’t meditate on Elvis’s drug addiction or the sexual politics of women in the 1960s, but I do long for a pink sweater set, a Polaroid camera, or a red Corvair. William Carlos Williams wrote, “no idea but in things.” Beautiful things are Coppola’s métier. The audience is ultimately left with a very pretty film that is as diaphanous and insubstantial as a chiffon scarf.
Coppola has architected an entire career out of the aestheticization of a waiting woman.
Coppola’s oeuvre post-Lost in Translation (2003) recurrently poses the same problem for spectators: how to contend with these films that are exquisite to look at but decidedly devoid of emotional substance, political intervention, or formal innovation? When Priscilla dyes her hair at Elvis’s bequest, the makeover sequence could be something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) when Scottie remakes Judy in the image of Madeline. Does Coppola endorse Elvis’s control or oppose it? The montage’s percussive music and fetishizing close-ups seem, if not quite an endorsement, nonetheless take great pleasure in a woman being (re)made by a man’s imagination. While the close-ups on an eye, a foot, or a lock of hair may be a pastiche of the Classical Hollywood style, such style seduces the contemporary spectator with the visual pleasure of a woman’s subjugation.
Coppola has architected an entire career out of the aestheticization of a waiting woman. In The Virgin Suicides (1999), the five Lisbon sisters wait for their lives to begin—or end—with Air’s ethereal electronic music accompanying each expression of animation or ennui; in Lost in Translation, Charlotte (played by an 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson) reclines in her Tokyo hotel room in various states of undress and repose like a modern-day La Grande Odalisque; in Marie Antoinette (2006), the titular character lounges in the bath eating bonbons and exclaiming over her satin shoes.
Priscilla similarly exists in a state of suspension for much of Coppola’s film. After Elvis returns to the United States from military duty, there follows a montage of Priscilla heartbroken in bed, writing Elvis’s name on her school books, tacking cards to her bedroom wall, and paging through movie magazines where tabloid gossip about Elvis’s love life abounds. In each close-up, Priscilla’s manicure or coverlet or penmanship is impeccable. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is a confection of soft lighting and dusky rose filters. A teenage girl’s boredom never looked so good.
A teenage girl’s boredom never looked so good.
To be sure, when you’re a child, waiting is inevitable. You wait for your first kiss, your first trip, your first brush with danger, your first regret. “I often felt sorry for myself,” Beaulieu Presley writes of the time period in high school when she lived at Graceland, “and angry at Elvis for putting me in a situation in which I was forced to be alone for literally weeks at a time.” But for Coppola, Priscilla’s waiting constitutes most of the film—and the boredom she experiences becomes something we as the audience share. There is an acute desire for Priscilla to express something other than affability or agreement, for her to do anything at all. When Elvis initially sends for the now 16-year-old Priscilla to visit him in Memphis, another montage follows of Priscilla reclining on various pieces of furniture in the empty house. With her coiffed hair and kitten heels, Priscilla is poised as a mannequin in the love seat or the armchair.
And yet, throughout the course of the almost two-hour runtime, Priscilla remains exactly that: beautiful to look at but offering no sense of what lies beneath. There are moments when the cool facade breaks, like when she snaps at Elvis that she’ll “return the fucking dress” after he chastises her for wearing prints rather than solid colors, or when she begs for sexual intimacy. But when Elvis retorts in response, “I see a mad woman before me,” the melodramatic statement becomes laughable. Priscilla is almost always mute. A madwoman is many things, but a staid personality she is not.
Interiority is scarce in Sofia Coppola’s films. We know that Priscilla paints her toenails tomato red and that she wears two layers of fake eyelashes to give birth in the hospital, but we know little of her inner life, save a desire for sex, Elvis’s undivided attention, and fun. In interviews, Coppola has described this film as Priscilla’s perspective on the rock and roll icon, as well as her own highly publicized life. From Priscilla’s point of view I see her Aqua Net hairspray, her bottled Coca-Cola, the pearl handle of her custom gun. Missing is the first person candor of Elvis and Me, in which Beaulieu Presley admits to riding on her Honda Dream 350 when Elvis was in the studio “fleeing Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, MGM, and all my worries.” In Priscilla she is not leaving but left, glamorous and alone, again and again and again.