Priscilla (2023, dir. Sofia Coppola) – Second Helping

by | Dec 30, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 113 mins

UK Distributor: MUBI

UK Release Date: 1 January 2024

WHO’S IN PRISCILLA?

Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Domińczyk, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin, Dan Beirne, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Dan Abramovici, R Austin Ball, Olivia Barrett, Emily Mitchell, Stephanie Moore, Luke Humphrey, Evan Annisette

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?

Priscilla Beaulieu (Spaeny) enters a whirlwind relationship with Elvis Presley (Elordi)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON PRISCILLA (THE SECOND HELPING)?

Welcome to a new review format I’m trying out, where I take another look at films that I either wasn’t keen on or perhaps overpraised when I first saw them at film festivals or advance screenings. The goal is to see if a second viewing alters my overall experience or reveals something that I perhaps did not consider in my original review, which in turn leads to a different opinion that might be more positive or negative. I will only do this with films that I think deserve to have another shot, otherwise they’ll just be mere reposts of the original review.

I feel that Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is a good film to start this new format with, because it’s a film I’ve been keen on revisiting since first seeing it at the BFI London Film Festival back in October (you can read that original review by clicking here). At the time, I found the movie to be rather underwhelming, with Coppola’s stylish but light direction doing little to enhance a largely event-free narrative, which came across like a glorified Lifetime movie than a truly innovative film about the famed wife of Elvis Presley.

It was an opinion that was very contrarian to the wide praise that the movie has received from most other critics and audiences. They, by contrast, have been highly vocal about the quiet power of this movie and have listed it among their top films of the year, with even some awards love thrown towards lead actor Cailee Spaeny, on top of her Best Actress win at the Venice Film Festival. Could there be something I was missing the first time around? What was I not seeing that everyone else clearly was? I simply had to go back and give it another go, especially since I’ve liked Coppola’s films in the past and found it odd that I wasn’t into this one as much.

Thankfully, not only did I find a lot more to like and appreciate about this movie on the second viewing, but I actually do think it’s a far better film than I originally gave it credit for.

Before that, though, here’s a quick re-summary of the plot: the film follows young Priscilla Beaulieu (Spaeny) who, at fourteen years old, meets and falls for global superstar Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) during his US Army days when he’s stationed in West Germany. She quickly becomes a part of his never-ending lifestyle, accompanying him to Las Vegas and living a life of luxury at his Graceland home, but soon Priscilla finds herself trapped under her lover and later husband’s control, with him dictating everything she can and can’t do whilst he’s away touring or shooting movies, right down to what kind of dresses she wears and the colour of her hair. Eventually, Priscilla finds herself yearning for a life away from Elvis’ shadow, especially as his unstable behaviour starts to dent their marriage.

Retrospectively, I feel that originally equating Priscilla to a Lifetime movie was an unfair judgement, for while at first it seems like it’s going through the motions of a sensationalised made-for-TV biopic, Coppola neatly packs a lot of harrowing themes and topics under its seemingly artificial surface. Scenes of Priscilla being emotionally manipulated and verbally (sometimes physically) abused by Elvis are deeply unsettling, especially for how matter-of-factly they are executed by the filmmaker, but Coppola does well to keep her film from ever taking a turn into the melodramatic, which really would have given off Lifetime vibes.

Instead, she gently nudges it towards a sobering portrait of a toxic relationship, where you get to see how isolating and lonely her existence is because he simply has to be in control of everything, due to all the control that’s been taken away from him by other parties (Colonel Tom Parker is mentioned often, and though he himself never appears his publicised pulling of Elvis’ strings is always a lingering presence, adding a subtle layer of tragedy to the character).

Like in previous movies such as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, Coppola charts a young girl’s journey toward womanhood through a series of emotionally taxing episodes in stark contrast to their luxurious lifestyle. In Priscilla, she gives her title character plenty of room to develop her own agency and autonomy within her relationship with Elvis, and as a result you really do see her grow from a naïve and somewhat reserved young teen to a self-assured woman who’s confident in her own path. The loosely-strung narrative, another thing I was quick to unjustly criticise in my first review, allows for the development to become much more apparent.

This, in turn, reveals a goal I wasn’t able to pick up on before: Coppola has deeply humanised a historical figure who’s been iconised in the wake of her husband’s legend status, and the loose structure is intentional as it lets this person naturally grow from this shy and petite figure to someone who is capable of creating their own destiny. Coppola’s writing and stylish direction accentuate this, as does some striking costume designs and, of course, a perfectly wound lead performance by Cailee Spaeny who is excellent in the film (as for Jacob Elordi, he’s fine but I honestly never fully bought him as Elvis; he’s perhaps a bit too soft to portray Elvis’ rogue bad-boy nature, something that Austin Butler nailed and then some in Baz Luhrmann’s recent biopic).

I still don’t think the movie is perfect, for there are still some scenes and sections that end up going nowhere, and you can tell where a quick edit could have made all the difference. However, I am very glad that I was able to revisit Priscilla and like it a lot more on my second viewing, because rarely do I ever go back and reevaluate a film, especially one that I didn’t care that much for the first time around, but for this one I knew there had to be more than what I originally saw, and thankfully there was.

I’ll certainly be doing more of these Second Helpings in the future, because if they’re anything like Priscilla, they might just be better (or maybe even worse) than I originally thought.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Priscilla is a quietly engaging portrait of the relationship between the titular figure and Elvis Presley which significantly improves on the second viewing, with more going on underneath the artificial surface that writer-director Sofia Coppola avoids steering toward melodrama as she carefully charts Priscilla’s humanising coming-of-age story.

Four of of five stars

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