Saturday, November 4, 2023

Priscilla: Movie Review

Female empowerment in the shadow of Elvis Presley.
I wasn’t expecting the romance between Priscilla and Elvis Presley to be a tale of female empowerment and women’s liberation, but here we are. Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla features Cailee Spaeny as the young Priscilla (fourteen years old to be exact) smitten in love and over the years, almost imperceptibly at first, grows to be a woman who stands up for herself and gets out of the stardom of Elvis Presley and an abusive relationship before it destroys her.   2023

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Screenplay by: Sofia Coppola
Based on the book by Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon

Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi

The script is based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me” and she also serves as the film’s executive producer. So the film is based in fact, so far as memory and personal biases may allow. It also may switch up a few people and timelines to tell the story it’s trying to tell, which in one way is how emotions and feelings change over time and how two lives which may be lived together but can grow so far apart so quickly.

We start in Germany. Priscilla is an army brat, moving around the US and overseas wherever her dad is stationed. She’s lonely; her loneliness is palpable and understandable - she’s a teenager with no friends in a foreign country and doesn’t know anybody her own age. One of Elvis’s army buddies introduces himself and invites her to a party at Elvis’s house. Maybe it was out of kindness because he saw an American girl very lonely and by herself, maybe it was more predatory in nature, but certainly not implied that way. These are US Army boys, they’re polite and conservative and talk to her parents first.

The rumour goes that it was love at first sight for Elvis. I think Priscilla presents it differently. Elvis was lonely, he hated the army, he hated being overseas, and he just lost his mother, and now he just met a kindred spirit, a girl who reminded him of his mother.

The film maintains the loneliness theme for young Priscilla. Still in love but apart from Elvis, and when he finally does reach out to her and she moves into Graceland, she’s always alone. He’s usually on a movie set, with rumours of affairs with co-stars, and she’s by herself at Graceland.

My favourite aspect of the movie is how Priscilla’s life over the years matches each wave of feminism. It starts with women entering the workforce – Priscilla’s first attempt at independence, still just a teenager, says she would like to get a job at a cosmetics store for a few hours after school. Elvis would rather just give her money but Priscilla thinks it would be fun and something to do, but Elvis says no, he needs her at home to answer the phone if he calls. The second stage is women’s sexual awakening – after Elvis denies Priscilla again, he explains they can only have sex when he decides they are ready. “But what about me? Why can’t I decide when I’m ready?”. And finally we have true independence when Priscilla finally realizes she doesn’t want to and doesn’t need to be a wife anymore.

There are reports going around that before her death, Lisa Marie Presley read the script and hated it. Denying that her father was a predator or abusive or a bad husband in anyway. It’s too bad that that was her takeaway because the movie is so much more nuanced than that. All of the rumoured affairs remained as rumours – Priscilla didn’t know if he was cheating on her or not, and the audience doesn’t know either. Every time he becomes abusive towards her, he immediately stops and apologizes, not to excuse the behaviour but to show he knows what he was doing was wrong, he never meant to hurt her. He was a man surrounded by excessive wealth and indulgences and was never told no, he absolutely lost sight of his moral compass and didn’t have anybody to get it back for him. But this movie also isn’t about Elvis, we only see him through Priscilla’s eyes.

For Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the casting of Austin Butler made perfect sense. He looked like Elvis, he sounded like Elvis, there was really no doubt he could pull off Elvis’s charisma and swagger. In contrast, the Jacob Elordi casting for Priscilla seemed weird and it still does. But this is the quieter side of Elvis. He’s not performing, he’s not touring, he’s not making public appearances. This is Elvis in between gigs, closed off to the world, and he’s finding it increasingly harder to be a rock star and be a family man the further he gets pushed into superstardom. This Elvis is in love often, lonely often, tired often, and eventually becomes agitated and erratic more quickly.

The first time I saw Cailee Spaeny was in How It Ends. She steals that movie, to the point that I looked her up, learned her name and have never forgotten her. She’s that good. And now comes her chance at becoming an award-winning household name. The evolution of Priscilla from a heartsick teenage girl to a young woman figuring out how to stand up for herself is so gradual with every development shaped by her experiences that came before. A perfect performance.

I want to say that Priscilla ends too early. But it ends on the right note, same as Spencer. This movie is not about the end of a marriage but a woman trying to live in a man’s world, and not just any man, but the most famous man on the planet.

One of the Best of 2023