Priscilla (2023, dir. Sofia Coppola) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 18, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 113 mins

UK Distributor: MUBI

UK Release Date: 5 January 2023

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN PRISCILLA?

Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Domińczyk, Raine Monroe Boland, Emily Mitchell, Jorja Cadence, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Luke Humphrey

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sofia Coppola (director, writer, producer), Youree Henley and Lorenzo Mieli (producers), Phoenix (composer), Philippe Le Sourd (cinematographer), Sarah Flack (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Young Priscilla Beaulieu (Spaeny) meets and falls for global superstar Elvis Presley (Elordi)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON PRISCILLA?

In last year’s Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann took audiences on a wild and extravagant ride through the life and times of Elvis Presley, which more than matched the larger-than-life attitude of the music legend’s public persona. Now, in quite a staggering shift in both tone and concept, writer-director Sofia Coppola brings a far more grounded and hard-hitting perspective to his notorious lifestyle, as told through the eyes of his most famous lady companion, a certain Priscilla Ann Presley (née Beaulieu).

Based on her tell-all memoir Elvis and Me (co-written with Sandra Harmon), Coppola’s Priscilla is the yin to the yang that is Luhrmann’s Elvis, and it does make some bold choices in telling a completely different to what is essentially the same story. However, if you’re looking for a more compelling representation of not just Elvis Presley but also the very woman at this film’s centre, the Luhrmann one is far meatier, deeper, and even more emotionally resonant than this sadly underwhelming mood piece.

Coppola’s film begins in 1959, with 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) living with her parents on a US Army base in West Germany. She is invited to a party with some of the older GIs, including a certain Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) who quickly catches his eye, and the two begin to form a close bond before he is eventually discharged from duty. Soon after, Elvis invites Priscilla to live with him at his Graceland estate, catapulting her into the public eye as well as into his hard-living lifestyle, which includes drug-taking and numerous other boisterous activities like bulldozing old houses and firing guns. However, with Elvis constantly on the road, Priscilla often finds herself alone at Graceland, under rather strict regimes by the singer and his team, and even when he is home, he doesn’t turn out to be the easiest person to live with (which is putting it mildly, given some of the rather unnerving stuff he does in this film).

It’s easy to see what Coppola is going for here, which is this fragmented and almost dream-like portrayal of a figure who’s just as interesting, if not more so, as the man she was married to. Coppola’s style is all over this film, from its chic visuals to a non-diegetic soundtrack largely made up of anachronistic song choices (none of Elvis’s actual songs are featured here, since the filmmakers weren’t given the rights by the late singer’s estate, so the closest we get are some vague soundalikes), and anyone who adores her work will find this film fitting right in with her other features that carry a similarly underplayed personality.

Meanwhile, Cailee Spaeny gives a strong central performance not entirely unlike previous Coppola ingénues such as Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides, Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (incidentally, still Coppola’s best film), and Dunst again in Marie Antoinette, though Spaeny manages to impress in her own way as a young woman trying to form her own path in a life written for her by her new love. Speaking of, Jacob Elordi does fine as Elvis, though he lacks the genuine swagger and charisma that Austin Butler brought to the role in the Luhrmann film – and besides, it is titled Priscilla, and as such both she and Spaeny’s portrayal take up far greater space.

However, while there is no doubt that Coppola’s smooth and meandering style is a pleasant one to explore, it doesn’t match particularly well with this largely uneventful story. A lot of it mostly shows Priscilla in an almost imprisoned state with very few people to talk to or form any meaningful connections with, outside of her relationship with the rather controlling Elvis, so we don’t get that much of an insight into her character beyond a number of wordless scenes where she simply stands around looking pretty and also pretty miserable.

Not much else really happens beyond her enduring the odd bit of abusive behaviour from her occasionally volatile partner, and right when things seem as though they’re finally about to get more interesting, the film simply ends. As a narrative, it is light to an utter fault, even for someone like Sofia Coppola whose whole aesthetic is defined by the word “light”, and in being so it leaves viewers less informed about who Priscilla Presley was, in or out of her defining marriage.

With its all-too gentle tone and its intermittent moments of sensationalism (particularly revolving around Elvis’ emotional and sometimes physical misconduct, which given it’s based on the real Priscilla’s memoir makes it a tricky tightrope to cross), Priscilla often comes off as a glorified made-for-TV movie, the kind you’d often find on Lifetime.

Granted, it’s far better made and certainly better acted than a lot of the actual movies on that channel, but the fact alone that I am comparing this new Sofia Coppola film to something that is far beneath the filmmaker’s genuine talent should tell you all that you need to know about its disappointing overall quality.

To use the lyrics of a popular Elvis song: all this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Priscilla is an underwhelming portrayal of the rocky relationship between Elvis Presley and his wife Priscilla, which despite Sofia Coppola’s ever-calming style and an impressive central turn by Cailee Spaeny opts for an overly light narrative that rarely engages the viewer and, at times, feels like a glorified Lifetime movie.

Three out of five stars

Other recent reviews:

Lisa Frankenstein (2024, dir. Zelda Williams)

A misunderstood teen resurrects a handsome corpse…

Spaceman (2024, dir. Johan Renck)

A lonely astronaut makes an unexpected connection on a solo mission…

American Star (2024, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego)

An aging hitman travels to Fuerteventura for a final mission…

Dune Part Two (2024, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Paul Atreides leads the Fremen of the desert planet Arrakis on a defiant mission…

Wicked Little Letters (2024, dir. Thea Sharrock)

In 1920s Littlehampton, a series of vulgar letters rock the community…

Perfect Days (2023, dir. Wim Wenders)

A Tokyo toiler cleaner leads a carefully structured life…

Memory (2023, dir. Michel Franco)

A woman has a surprise encounter with an old high school classmate…

Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Son (2024, dir. Lorna Tucker)

Filmmaker Lorna Tucker explores the UK’s ongoing homeless crisis…

Bob Marley: One Love (2024, dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green)

Reggae musician Bob Marley rises to prominence throughout the world…

Madame Web (2024, dir. S.J. Clarkson)

A clairvoyant paramedic protects a trio of young women from a mysterious assailant…

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *