Film Review: Priscilla
By Joseph Beyer | Nov. 25, 2023
While you will certainly be mesmerized by the haunting lead performance from newcomer Cailee Spaeny—and be impressed as always by the sophisticated storytelling of director Sofia Coppola—you may also find yourself wondering at the end of Priscilla if you missed something and the film was actually about her husband, Elvis Presley.
It’s a bit of a bold narrative and cinematic trick that mirrors the same secondary placement the real Priscilla Beaulieu lived through after her first meeting with the rock ‘n’ roll star at the vulnerable age of 14.
The circumstances were fateful: Both Presley and Beaulieu’s families found themselves stationed overseas in West Germany in 1959. Priscilla’s father takes his responsibilities seriously, but Elvis is on a bit of a vacation, building up his American bona fides while surrounded by his sycophants and all the pampered luxuries from home.
Priscilla is immediately infatuated, and following an invitation to meet the legend, the two form an intimate and complex union that would last until the famed singer’s death in 1973, endure through marriage and divorce, and continue on through the life of their only child Lisa Marie (who criticized Coppola’s script as hyperbolic when she read it, but passed away earlier this year before seeing the final film).
Now 78, the real-life Priscilla shares both screenwriting and producing credits on the project, which is based on her memoir, Elvis and Me, published in 1985. She has said Coppola’s handling had initially made her nervous, but ultimately won her over through the truth of what she saw in the adaptation.
The result of the cautious collaboration is a taut, nuanced, and precise examination of the inner life of a girl-turned-woman forced to the sidelines for most of her life and the irony of a dream come true that led to deep trauma. Priscilla’s abandonment and loneliness are palpable even and often without words, and Spaeny’s on-screen portrayal is deservingly buzzworthy.
Just as powerful is the tortured performance of a sometimes-violent Elvis, brought to life by actor Jacob Elordi. The film reveals a dark utility in his relationship with a younger Priscilla reminiscent of Nabokov’s controversial Lolita, telling her after meeting, “Promise you’ll stay the way you are now.”
Later, Elvis turns Priscilla’s adulation into self-loathing as he dresses and shapes her in the images his heart desires at any given time. It’s a shameful Madonna-whore dichotomy out of her control.
From there, the audience experiences her entrapment as the King comes and goes, loves and hates, and expects Priscilla to be there whenever and however he needs her. Lost, without clear options, and hanging onto the hope his deeper love will return for her, Priscilla numbs her pain as best she can and stoically carries on.
Following on the heels of last year’s successful biopic Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in both the man and his cultural influence. Director Coppola is fighting for a flipside to the myth, or at least a counterpoint, or maybe even screaming for Priscilla to be examined, celebrated, and, ultimately, understood. I believe she and her team of artists succeeded brilliantly.
Rated R for adult language, drug use, and sexual content, Priscilla is remarkably complete at only 1 hour 49 minutes.