Priscilla (A24, R)

Because it has a plethora of qualities about it which I love, I certainly wouldn’t call Priscilla one of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s lesser films. However, it does have some of the issues which plague her lesser works, including an irritating sparseness of dialogue, even while its visual storytelling features many moments of brilliance.

First things first: Cailee Spaeny is phenomenal in the title role. Her performance makes Priscilla worthy of being seen in a theater, as it invites us into Coppola’s empathetic statement about Priscilla Presley and her unorthodox marriage to Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). In addition to the beyond-problematic age gap between them when Elvis first met and pursued her (Priscilla was 14, living on a U.S. military base in Germany with her family; Elvis was 24), once the relationship began in earnest, there’s not many words to describe the way he treated her other than gaslighting.

Spaeny often communicates Priscilla’s profound disappointment with a single look. Her and Elordi’s on-screen chemistry convinces us both of a genuine attraction and a naivety on her part, making Elvis’ outbursts of domestic violence genuinely frightening, as they break the easygoing tenor of their early romance. In this sense, the trajectory of the entire film is like being awakened from an initially pleasant dream that was quickly turning into a nightmare.

Both actors acquit themselves so well here that it’s frustrating they weren’t given more to say. The film is based on Priscilla’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, and I have to imagine that there’s much more supplemental musing included within those pages. Here, lesser actors would have probably come off as robotic given some of the film’s bare-bones exchanges of words. There are flashes of biting sarcasm and insight, especially from Priscilla herself, but the script overall leaves a lot to be desired.

Coppola’s visual direction makes up for some of the script issues, though. There are a few too many montages for my taste, but Coppola and director of photography Philippe Le Sourd consistently find beautiful shot compositions and ease us through the passage of time quite gracefully. The overall color palette is very muted, which annoyed me at first but won me over in the second and third acts. Coppola and company are going for as little glam as possible, and this is a major way in which Priscilla is in conversation with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. While Luhrmann certainly didn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of Elvis’ life, he also certainly didn’t approach this history with a perspective unimpressed by fame. Coppola is more concerned with Elvis as a troubled, three-dimensional human being whose faults impacted those around him, especially Priscilla. The muted colors help us see the situation for what it really is, and the terrific lead performances make us lean in to try to understand the inner lives we can never fully know.

What might have done more for our understanding of Priscilla’s inner life would be if the film itself gave her more to do while Elvis was on the road. She’s constantly searching for her own identity separate from being his lover, but because of the lack of dialogue and the reliance on montage, we’re still at somewhat of a distance from that search. Though perhaps that’s part of the point here: Priscilla probably felt like a bit of a blank slate until she left her own heartbreak hotel. | George Napper

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