Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, US) 

By Manuela Lazic

The aesthetic appeal of Sofia Coppola’s work—baby pink and pastel colours, girly make-up and cute clothes, soft lighting and trippy music—belies a deeper understanding of the condition of teenage girls, her favourite subject. For the filmmaker, these formal elements aren’t just their surface, but their very substance—the Lisbon sisters’ pink bedrooms in The Virgin Suicides (1999) are part and parcel of their identities. As Coppola’s young girls begin to find themselves, the culture around them offers options (more or less limited depending on the time and place) for self-definition and self-representation. In Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla, the eponymous protagonist knows, even before meeting her future husband Elvis Presley, how to apply her rouge, tie up her hair, do her nails, and what music to listen to (Elvis, of course). All these objects shape who she is up to that point, on the cusp of further building up her identity beyond these borrowed signifiers, by either reclaiming them as her own or disregarding them and finding new ones. Not that she doesn’t already have a personality; rather, it is muted by her circumstances, which aren’t that special. For young American girls, whether one lives on a military base in ’60s Germany or in an upper-middle-class suburb in ’70s Detroit, like the Lisbon girls, repression is a given.

Much like the song “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells that is featured on the Priscilla soundtrack, adolescence is a trip—a mix of reverie and loneliness, where dreams and reality clash brutally and pull us in different directions. We discover our desire, which is at once nature and nurture, coming from our bones and our media. Perhaps more influenceable than ever, we nevertheless start to assert our differences and preferences. This growing individuality often happens through crushes, whether they be on classmates or celebrities we have little chances of ever meeting. “Now I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her,” the song goes—our imagination runs wild. But Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny), unlike most of us, did get to meet her idol. At 15, she gets invited to a party by the King himself (Jacob Elordi), and for a while after that, her dream was a reality. “What a beautiful feeling!” we hear as she walks through her school halls in slow motion, head in the clouds and Elvis in her heart.

In Coppola’s other films, teenage emancipation is introduced through a desire that is never truly fulfilled. The Lisbons grow restless in their domestic prison when they start developing crushes on the neighbourhood boys, but the fascinated young men can’t see beyond the beauty and mystique of the girls and fail to be there for them. The arrival of Colin Farrell’s sexy Union soldier in The Beguiled (2017) triggers desire and a lust for life among the school girls, but they can’t get no satisfaction. Priscilla, on the other hand, gets her love story and freedom from her parents on a silver platter. Coppola is at her best when she centres on the exhilaration and pleasure of anticipation, when thinking proves not so wishful after all. As Priscilla enters Elvis’ party, she sees his tall silhouette across the room, the distance between them at once shorter than ever yet significant—a classic meet-cute but, this time, one between a girl and the embodiment of her own (and the whole nation’s) fantasies. 

Spaeny plays Priscilla with a quiet expressiveness, a seeming nobility that betrays a learned suspicion and introversion that only breaks when she’s alone. In a car being driven to Elvis’ house for the second time, Priscilla radiates a childish kind of happiness, the sort you see on kids’ faces on Christmas morning. Like the boys in The Virgin Suicides who imagined the girls’ glory in their heads precisely because they couldn’t get near them, it is in those moments apart from Elvis that Priscilla’s love for him grows. But eventually, and rather quickly, she does get the chance to be close to him. 

Priscilla’s first romantic moments with Elvis are the stuff of dreams, not because they’re truly perfect, but rather due to their ambiguity and awkward tenderness. They are exactly the kind of impossible, almost absurd situations a teenager would daydream about: he invites me to his party, then we go to his bedroom but he really just wants to talk, then he asks my parents if I can fly to his mansion and live with him, and he gives me a puppy! Coppola centres on Priscilla’s bewilderment at her luck while maintaining a certain distance, which feels faithful to the real Priscilla’s perspective on these events today (as an adult writing the memoir the film is based on, and with oversight on the project). Much has been said of the height difference between Spaeny and Elordi, and it is true that this exaggerated, neck-breaking contrast emphasizes the charismatic and material power that Elvis holds over his teenage girlfriend. Spaeny’s petiteness also accentuates Priscilla’s isolation and vulnerability in Graceland’s gigantic rooms. Wearing cute dresses selected by her beau and the make-up he prefers, the young girl still doesn’t look like a woman, but rather like Alice in Wonderland—and she too is at one point drugged, a sleeping beauty venerated but treated like a fun doll to play with—except for Alice, it really was just a dream.

The claustrophobia and forced arrested development that Priscilla experiences as Mrs. Presley echo the stifling overprotection that the Lisbon girls went through. Like them, Priscilla isn’t allowed to evolve beyond her “pure” innocence, as Elvis calls it, and is obligated not only to be stuck in her own childish fantasy, but also to remain one for the King, who prefers cheating on her than helping her lose her virginity. In just a few scenes, Elordi manages to reveal the broken, lonely, used child under the hypersexual and flamboyant young man, and the initial tenderness between the couple feels genuine. But fantasies are meant to be transcended, not just realized: Elvis himself, like many celebrated artists before and after him, struggled with seeing his dreams come true and moving past them. After a while, Priscilla’s doll life at her idol’s side isn’t enough for her, and both their fantasies curdle, as if they’d been let out in the open air for too long. Elvis’ behaviour becomes erratic and violent, and Priscilla wants more out of life. Perhaps Coppola could have done more to show the young woman’s growing dissatisfaction, but the lightness of the ending feels more like an emerging out of a cloud than a rude awakening, which ultimately seems more realistic. The film’s considered and compassionate perspective suggests that, in the years since she left Graceland, Priscilla has arrived at her own understanding of her story—one probably informed by today’s morals and sensibilities, but also by the adult she was finally able to become.

, https://cinema-scope.com markperanson@gmail.com Peranson Mark mlazic@cinema-scope.com Lazic Manuela
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