Film Analysis: The Dichotomy of Youthful Illusion and Stark Realities in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’

by Ethan Kim
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Sofia Coppola's Priscilla

The act of adolescents romantically idolizing Elvis Presley by pouring over his vinyl record sleeves was a commonplace ritual for American young women during the waning years of the 1950s and the dawn of the 1960s.

However, for Priscilla Beaulieu, what began as youthful daydreaming morphed into an extraordinary and often bizarre existence. In the motion picture “Priscilla,” with Cailee Spaeny taking the lead role, Sofia Coppola expertly encapsulates the enchantment, the outlandishness, and, ultimately, the harrowing ordeal of becoming romantically entangled with Elvis.

(Philippe Le Sourd/A24 via AP)

She was merely a freshman in high school — when their paths first crossed. The year was 1959, and she found herself in West Germany due to her stepfather’s Air Force deployment. In the early tranquil sequences of Coppola’s picture, we see Priscilla alone, enjoying a soda at a Navy base eatery, the soundtrack of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” playing in the background, its lyrics a haunting echo to her own life.

The moment an individual inquires if she’s an Elvis fan sets the stage. Her affirmative response leads to an unexpected proposition: to meet Elvis himself. After parental deliberation, Priscilla finds herself seated on a couch at an intimate gathering, only to be joined by the iconic Elvis Presley (portrayed by Jacob Elordi), much to her overwhelming awe.

Coppola, recognized for her directorial works in “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” has an exceptional talent for portraying the evolving identities, burgeoning passions, and personal epiphanies of young women. Through Priscilla Presley’s life (the script draws from her 1985 autobiography, “Elvis and Me”), Coppola has discovered a narrative profoundly suited to her subtly insightful cinematic touch.

(Sabrina Lantos/A24 via AP)
(A24 via AP)

In its essence, “Priscilla” stands in stark contrast to Baz Luhrmann’s portrayal in “Elvis.” While Luhrmann’s creation is vivid and volatile, Coppola’s is subdued and richly detailed. Her rendition unfolds like a fairy tale that gradually takes on a suffocating and admonitory tone.

There are moments of levity in “Priscilla,” particularly in the beginning. After capturing Elvis’ attention, Priscilla returns to her mundane school routine, a stark contrast to her recent encounter. The narrative humorously implies the ludicrousness of comparing a typical freshman boy to Elvis.

Despite the seemingly conventional progression of their courtship, Elvis’ attraction to Priscilla, steeped in his yearning for innocence, raises implicit concerns about her youthfulness. The murmurs of bystanders underscore the problematic nature of their relationship as we see Elvis guiding a youthful Priscilla upstairs, her childlike quality evident.

Their shared existence begins as a whimsical journey, despite the blatant eccentricities of Elvis that viewers can plainly discern. His ostentatious bedroom at Graceland and peculiar gifts, such as presenting Priscilla with a handgun, are testaments to the bizarre reality she inhabits.

Although the film refrains from featuring any songs by Presley (with Priscilla Presley as an executive producer, yet without the involvement of the Presley estate), it shares a significant piece of music (Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer”) with Terence Malick’s “Badlands”—another film about a young girl led astray by a charming rogue.

As Priscilla’s life grows increasingly grim, she becomes a figurative doll, confined by Elvis’ demands, showcasing Coppola’s fascination with the concept of opulent imprisonment, as previously explored in her films like “Marie Antoinette” and “The Bling Ring.” For Priscilla, the expansiveness of Graceland becomes a velvet-lined cell.

(Sabrina Lantos/A24 via AP)

Coppola’s “Priscilla” is a film layered with complexity and elegance, magnificently captured by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, with lavish production design by Tamara Deverell and subdued, yet precise, costuming by Stacey Battat.

Yet, where “Elvis” managed to find a poignant crescendo, “Priscilla” seems to lose momentum. As Elvis’ career wanes in Las Vegas, Luhrmann’s film elevates into a tragedy. In contrast, “Priscilla” rushes towards a quick, though powerful, awakening, marked by a memorable appearance by Dolly Parton.

Throughout the film, Cailee Spaeny delivers a nuanced and striking performance, balancing on the precipice between adolescent dreams and the starkness of grown-up realities.

“Priscilla,” distributed by A24, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for drug use and some language, with a running time of 113 minutes. The film earns a commendable three out of four stars.

This article has been corrected to clarify that the cover of the Frankie Avalon song “Venus” featured in the film is performed by Sons of Raphael, not Phoenix, who served as musical supervisors for the movie.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla

What is Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ about?

‘Priscilla’ is a film by Sofia Coppola that tells the story of Priscilla Beaulieu’s youthful infatuation and eventual complex relationship with Elvis Presley, capturing the transition from her dreamy adoration to the sobering reality of their life together.

Who stars in the leading role of ‘Priscilla’?

Cailee Spaeny stars as Priscilla Beaulieu in Sofia Coppola’s film, delivering a performance that weaves between the innocence of young love and the disillusionment that comes with adult realities.

How does ‘Priscilla’ compare to Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’?

While Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ is characterized by vivid and dynamic storytelling, Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ offers a more subdued, textured approach, focusing on the personal and emotional journey of Priscilla Presley rather than the spectacle of Elvis’s life.

Is Elvis Presley’s music featured in ‘Priscilla’?

No, ‘Priscilla’ does not feature Elvis Presley’s music, due to the lack of participation from the Presley estate, although Priscilla Presley herself is an executive producer on the film.

Who is the cinematographer for ‘Priscilla’, and what is notable about the film’s visual presentation?

Philippe Le Sourd serves as the cinematographer for ‘Priscilla’, contributing to the film’s richly layered visual narrative with sumptuous production design by Tamara Deverell and finely crafted costumes by Stacey Battat.

What is the MPAA rating for ‘Priscilla’ and why?

‘Priscilla’ is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for its depiction of drug use and some language, ensuring the film’s themes and content are suitable for an adult audience.

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