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Priscilla Confronts a Creepy Elvis

Sofia Coppola’s Elvis is an insecure jock, a rudderless pretty boy with more charisma than talent.

Philippe Le Sourd/A24

Try as we might, to ignore the autobiographical elements of Sofia Coppola’s films requires a formidable, if not counterintuitive, effort in critical restraint. Her screen debut came before her first birthday, in the climactic sequence of her father’s masterpiece, an allegory of American capitalism wherein her staged baptism, as a male heir of the Corleone crime family, reinforces the theme of generational power and wealth, an inheritance doomed by violence and pride. Eighteen years later, playing the beloved daughter of Al Pacino’s Michael, she is shot dead on the steps of the opera house in Palermo, taking a bullet meant for the belatedly penitent godfather, who now comprehends without any doubt that there is no escaping the sins of his or his relatives’ past.

Coppola, too, has suffered the weight of her own father’s burden, unfairly absorbing the jeers aimed at The Godfather Part III by accepting, at Francis Ford’s behest, the role Winona Ryder relinquished in the wake of a nervous breakdown—a job, Sofia has insisted, to which she never aspired. By the time she directed her first short, Lick the Star, in 1998, her father loomed over the American cinema inspiring a complicated reverence rivaling that of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito. If her cousin, Nicolas Cage, broke out, guns blazing, as the Sonny of this Hollywood mafia and her brother Roman’s comparative mediocrity has disappointed in the manner of Fredo, Sofia would take over the family business, recruiting her younger Schwartzman cousins for loyal capos. Her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, announced a new regime: brooding, stylish, and playful; independent, though not above the influence of familial interests.

Priscilla, Coppola’s eighth feature, combines the two modes of filmmaking that have come to define her directorial vision: the moody, largely plotless character studies of Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere, on the one hand; the more conventional but no less ambitious experiments in genre—The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring, The Beguiled—all adapted from source material, on the other (2020’s On the Rocks, a romantic comedy that relies too heavily on the avuncular charm of Bill Murray, fits neither category). In fact, Coppola’s direct quotations of Marie Antoinette—slipping on a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels, staring listlessly out of bedroom windows—in Priscilla, a story of “American royalty” adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, announce Coppola as a filmmaker in the mold of Paul Schrader or, to be generous, Yasujiro Ozu: obsessed with a small handful of scenarios, character profiles, and emotional stakes to the extent of revisiting them with slight variation and occasional recombination ad infinitum.

The seething, masculine solitude and preoccupation with self-mastery that overwhelm Schrader’s protagonists are almost reversed in Coppola’s oeuvre: The isolation thrust upon her heroines by feckless husbands and fathers results in, if not always liberation, self-discovery, newfound confidence, determination, and desire. Coppola has resisted the characterization of her films as “feminist”; the psychological profiles of her male leads are often more vivid in execution than those of the women who are subjected to patriarchal vanities, whims, and indecision. The arrival and departure of Murray’s Bob Harris to and from Tokyo establish him as the narrative focal point of Lost in Translation, rather than Scarlett Johansson. Coppola’s reworking of novelist Thomas P. Cullinan’s The Beguiled, first filmed by Don Siegel in 1971, as a women-centered drama fails to clarify the motivations of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, or Elle Fanning’s waylaid Southern belles above her portrait of Colin Farrell’s Union deserter as a coward whose self-loathing narcissism gives way to violence.

Fortunately, by choosing to direct the second Elvis biopic to be released in as many years, Coppola could depend on the legend that precedes to provide the necessary context, freeing her up to tell a story that is less known. As Presley wrote in her memoir nearly 40 years ago, Elvis “taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to behave, how to return love—his way. Over the years he became my father, my husband, and very nearly God.”

In Priscilla, Coppola leaves off-screen those tribulations of the Elvis myth—the death of his doting mother, Gladys; greedy exploitation at the hands of prescription-happy physicians and Colonel Tom Parker—that tend to excuse him as a victim, a truth that Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me” is careful not to deny. Priscilla’s Elvis is an insecure jock, a rudderless pretty boy with more charisma than talent who prefers the company of pistol-toting sycophants to anyone else. His portrayal by Jacob Elordi, the six-foot-five-inch Australian who stars as a terrifying high school quarterback on HBO’s Euphoria, makes physically clear the diminishment of the much younger Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) to the status of a toy-sized accessory. When he is not a disembodied voice, slurring in a deep-fried, pill-induced haze via long-distance telephone, Elvis looms over his child bride, a voluntarily celibate sexual threat who dangles the deferred promise of consummation as a weapon of manipulation and dominance.

The plot of Marie Antoinette also hinges on the reluctance of another king, Jason Schwartzman’s sheepish Louis XVI, to seal the proverbial deal, spurring in Dunst’s queen a frustration and insatiable lust for decadence and infidelity. But before he was king, Elvis was a sex symbol, and it is unlikely that anyone, Priscilla included, would have been so drawn to him were it not for what was devilishly teased by the shaking of those hips. Priscilla Beaulieu was a 14-year-old Air Force brat when, in 1959, a fellow serviceman of her stepfather stationed in Wiesbaden, West Germany, invited her to the off-base home of Elvis, then 24 and nearing the end of his military service, at 14 Goethestrasse in Bad Nauheim. A chaste though eyebrow-raising courtship ensued until Elvis returned to the U.S. in 1960; the romance continued remotely until the couple convinced the Beaulieus to let Priscilla visit Graceland for two weeks in 1962, during which time Elvis whisked her off to Las Vegas in flagrant disregard of her parent’s wishes, and evangelized his taste for late nights, later mornings, amphetamines, and sleeping pills, to which she quickly became accustomed. Less than a year later, Captain Beaulieu reluctantly agreed to enroll Priscilla at Memphis’s Immaculate Conception High School, an all-girls Catholic school handpicked by Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, so that the young lovers could be together; she graduated in 1963 only by virtue of another Elvis fan, who made the answers on her math final visible in return for an offer to meet her classmate’s famous boyfriend.

Marriage followed in 1967, as did a child, Lisa Marie, in 1968, but Elvis was never less distant than he had been when Priscilla was still overseas. His susceptibility to New Age quackery, his fragile ego, increasing dependency on drugs, and rumored affairs with Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra, among others, led to them, as Priscilla puts it, “living separate lives,” and they formally separated in 1972, following an altercation in his Imperial Palace suite which “Elvis and Me” describes as rape but Coppola chooses to depict as an aggressively proprietary kiss.

This is not the only indicting detail from Presley’s memoir that Priscilla softens or omits: While still a freshman in Germany, Priscilla was assaulted by an Elvis associate named Kurt, who was ostracized, though not explicitly. (“I don’t think Elvis ever told him why, but Kurt must have known. He rarely came around after that.”) It is possible that the legal complexities precluding the use of Elvis’s music in the film or access to Graceland—which the crew recreated in Toronto—discouraged Coppola from overplaying her hand, or that the recollections of the real-life Priscilla, who was moved to tears by the film’s premiere at Venice, have drifted over the decades. In any case, the gist is clear: Elvis was a creep.

As for Priscilla, Spaeny shines in the garb of Coppola teenagerdom, Philippe Le Sourd’s sunburst cinematography highlighting the contrast between the brightness of the world outside and the darkness of the marital bedroom, which Elvis, who was functionally nocturnal, kept dim; at the New York Film Festival press conference, production designer Tamara Deverell credited the inspiration of William Eggleston’s Graceland photographs and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. The slow pace of long takes that suited the late Harris Savides’s camera in Somewhere is mitigated in Priscilla with a return to the clipped, iconographic montage of Marie Antoinette—hair spray, eyeliner, a stack of fan mail, a white baby grand, a porcelain tiger, sequined gowns lined up beneath matching pearl-handled derringers, red-painted toes sinking into plush pink carpet—as well as an anachronistic soundtrack that intersperses period pop (including a memorable use of Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” as Priscilla speeds her convertible past palm trees en route to Hollywood, a sexy karate instructor, and presumably, freedom) with Dan Deacon, covers of the Ronettes and Frankie Avalon by the Ramones, and routine collaborators Phoenix (whose vocalist, Thomas Mars, is Coppola’s husband).

Although it is not the first nor likely the last instance of Coppola drawing from her significant reserves of experience, resources, and skill to reflect on just how lonely it can be at the top, Priscilla avoids the missteps that led many of her earlier films to be accused of tone deafness, unchecked privilege, or worse: the casual racism of Lost in Translation, which has aged like milk; the flimsy, faux-Antonioni pretensions of Somewhere; the soft nihilism of The Bling Ring; the complete erasure of African Americans in The Beguiled, a movie about the Civil War.

The script, which sticks close to the book, pokes timely holes in a strain of American mythology whose dismantling is overdue and, as evidenced by lesser filmmakers’ eagerness to repackage it wholesale, incomplete. That Coppola employs the master’s tools in doing so, reveling in the allure of luxury and youth, may be a logical fallacy, but as the crown princess of the beleaguered New Hollywood dream, these are the crude instruments at her disposal.