Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to meet Elvis Presley at a house party?
Meeting the world’s biggest star is the first choice Sofia Coppola gives Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) in Priscilla. It isn’t a choice at all. Even at an Army base in West Germany, where Priscilla’s family is stationed, people love Elvis (Jacob Elordi). Her parents have reservations but approve the meeting, as long as Elvis’ friend and his wife escort her. In a cozy living room amidst a mid-sized gathering, Priscilla sees Elvis. The two hit it off, a meet-cute decades before anyone defined the term. It feels like a dream come true: a young woman catches the eye of a future legend, so otherworldly that he can catch a glass before it shatters on the ground from his aggressively playing the piano. It’s almost too perfect.
That’s because it is. The truth is Priscilla Beaulieu is not a young woman. She is a 15-year-old girl in the 9th grade. Priscilla tells Elvis this, but he is undeterred. “The little one has spunk,” he says before impressing her with the piano-glass trick.
Priscilla strikes a very complicated balance: enfolding us within Priscilla’s rose-colored puppy love while grounding us in its insidious nature. After the couple’s gauzy first meeting, Coppola cuts to the following day, where Priscilla is furiously bored in class. (These abrupt breaks from fantasy to reality recur frequently.) You can’t blame her; what is high school compared to Elvis looking at her like that? Coppola evokes a gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere around Elvis and Priscilla’s encounters in West Germany, surrounding them in soft lighting and breezy ‘50s love songs. She ensconces them in clandestine, medium-shot conversations where they bond over their loneliness in a foreign land, and he confides his fears of irrelevance and grief over his recently deceased mother. It might look sweet to a teenager, but Coppola trusts us to scrutinize the subtle manipulation behind Elvis’s vulnerability. He may be lonely and grieving, but he knows what he’s doing.
And so, Coppola embarks on a schoolgirl fantasy with shades of menace creeping along the edges. Her script subtly punches holes in Elvis and Priscilla’s ostensible courtship and shows how effortlessly Elvis dodged the guardrails her parents (or the law) set up for her. When Priscilla’s father (lightly) grills Elvis about his intentions, he insists she is “mature for her age.” Her father agrees to let them meet if he brings her home at a reasonable hour. What they do before that hour is left vague. When Elvis flies Priscilla to Memphis for the first time, his father Vernon serves as her guardian, on paper. At Graceland, Elvis’ grandmother occasionally checks on her. However, she’s left mostly alone amongst his sprawling entourage. Elvis’ household, for several reasons, enables a relationship they must know is wrong since they jump through hoops to cover for him.
The thoughtful worldbuilding allows for a similar excavation of Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship. Coppola doesn’t hide from the central truth that Elvis groomed Priscilla and carefully catalogs how. Elvis heaps attention on Priscilla and then vanishes – for two years when he leaves the Army, or weeks and months for film shoots – to make her long for him. He shares his pills to “help” her sleep. Elvis radically reshapes her look – he is responsible for her now-iconic jet-black beehive – and pushes back on her reservations. (Coppola, in a stroke of clever brilliance, plays a Ronettes song when Priscilla accepts a new car as a birthday gift, looking just like Ronnie Spector.) He refuses sex, insisting they wait “until the time is right.” That doesn’t mean he’s celibate; he brazenly cheats on her. When Priscilla confronts him with headlines about his affairs, he blasts her for not accepting his lifestyle.
Priscilla’s potent mix of Madonna-whore complex and grooming dynamics offer the most detailed inner portraits of either person. At first, Priscilla’s identity feels oddly muted, subsumed by Elvis’s sheer magnitude. That is by Coppola’s design. Priscilla’s isolated youth prevented her from forming a solid identity, at least not one someone could overwrite. Even though he isn’t the main focus, Coppola grants Elvis a rich, complicated persona. We see a generational talent frustrated by his lack of professional agency and how he uses Priscilla to exert the control he wants. Elvis’s emotional immaturity doesn’t keep him shrewdly knowing their ages grant him outsized power. Interestingly enough, the arrogance accompanying the cunning grants Priscilla space to learn how to turn his emotional manipulation against him. Sadly, we see few of these moments, and Elvis and Priscilla’s later years, with Coppola speed-walking through what eventually broke their marriage.
Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi beautifully realize Coppola’s interpretations of their iconic characters. Spaeny plays Priscilla with sharp attention to the tiny changes in a woman’s transition from girlhood to motherhood while holding firm to the innocence that Elvis wrestled from her. Her most triumphant moments come from her quietly discovering the realities of Elvis’s reality distortion field and calculating how she can move within it. Spaeny approaches this involved work with impressive nuance. Elordi operates on the same wavelength with his portrayal of the legend. Even though Coppola’s vision doesn’t require impersonation, Elordi assumes the essential hallmarks of the Elvis persona, from look to voice, with disarming ease. That aesthetic effortlessness frees him to dig into Elvis’s roiling psychology: his creeping anxieties, sparkling charisma, and predatory inclinations. Elordi’s finely tuned, sensitive performance doesn’t villainize or excuse Elvis but helps us understand him better.
“Understanding” is Priscilla’s key pillar. Graceland has long since been shrouded in a gauzy, almost impenetrable mythology, making it difficult to access the people who resided within it. Sofia Coppola manages to pierce through and let the darkness inside seep out. Through her camera, we see Elvis and Priscilla fall to Earth from their perch atop the collective cultural consciousness and the twisted power dynamics of their relationship. Some will surely squirm being this close to images once immortalized in flat magazine covers and posters. However, it is the most fiercely honest telling of their story that exists. It’s what icons of their stature ultimately deserve.
Priscilla had its North American premiere at the 61st New York Film Festival, and will be released in theaters nationwide on November 3rd.