The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - PRISCILLA | The Movie Waffler


A young girl enters a relationship with the world's most famous man.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Domińczyk, Raine Monroe Boland, Emily Mitchell, Jorja Cadence, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Luke Humphrey

Priscilla poster

Before the 1950s, the concept of the teenager didn't really exist. A teenager was simply a young adult, expected to behave like a grown-up in most ways but remain a child in some. Then, in America at least (my father left a less liberated Ireland in the late 1950s at the age of 14 to immediately begin working in a foreign country), came rock n roll, b-movies and soda fountains. Suddenly teenagers were both seen and heard, adopted by American marketers as a symbol of the nation's youthful pep. One of the key figures in the establishment of the teenager was singer Elvis Presley, who embodied youthful rebellion and scared old fogies with his hip movements. Teens would have followed him over a cliff.

It's ironic then that one American teen who never really got to be a teenager was Elvis's great love, Priscilla Presley, whom he began dating when she was just 14. Using Priscilla Presley's autobiography 'Elvia and Me' as a road map, Sofia Coppola details the ups and downs (and uppers and downers) of Elvis and Priscilla's then barely remarkable but now highly controversial relationship.

Priscilla review

Though in her mid-twenties at the time of shooting, Cailee Spaeny is remarkably convincing as the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu we find at the beginning of the film. Dressed like the girlfriend of the young hero of a '50s b-movie, we find Priscilla sipping cola through a straw in a diner, the very picture of American innocence. Priscilla is far from home though. She lives in Germany, where her military father is stationed. The most famous man in the world, a 24-year-old Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), is also stationed there, having been drafted despite his fame.

When a member of Elvis's entourage spots Priscilla in said diner he invites her to a gathering at the rock n roller's temporary home. Her parents ban her from attending but they eventually give in to her protests. There Priscilla finds not Elvis the icon but Elvis Presley, a rather awkward and shy young man who charms her with his Southern gentleman patter and brings her to near orgasm as soon as he starts belting out a tune on the piano. The envy of every teenage girl in the world, Priscilla is invited to live in Graceland with Elvis.

Priscilla review

Coppola does an evocative job of portraying Graceland as a particularly tacky prison, an overly gilded cage. With her lover away shooting movies most of the time, Priscilla is left to wander its lonely corridors. The emptiness of such an iconic American castle is reminiscent of the post-assassination Camelot scenes in Pablo Larrain's Jackie. Later, when Elvis's behaviour has turned toxic and threatening, the empty rooms recall that montage at the end of John Carpenter's Halloween of all the now deserted rooms once stalked by a madman. Coppola's Graceland is an off-season heartbreak hotel.

The production was unable to acquire the rights to use any of Elvis's music, and it works in the movie's favour. This is after all, largely a movie about the absence of Elvis. Even when present by Priscilla's side, Elvis isn't really there. A reliance on drugs to keep him awake and put him to sleep renders him an unreceptive zombie, and his old-fashioned beliefs keep him from satisfying Priscilla's sexual desires.

Priscilla review

In scenes reminiscent of Vertigo, Elvis fashions Priscilla into his ideal of how his lover should look, controlling every aspect of her image like an abusive gay best friend ("You're a short girl, you gotta stay away from prints!"). Priscilla's wardrobe plays a key role in the narrative as she increasingly defies her eventual husband's wishes and sports the sort of outfits that might give him a coronary. Coppola is as exacting as Elvis in how she focusses on minute details of Priscilla's appearance, filling the screen with close-ups of her painted toenails and fake eyelashes as the girl tries to become a woman.

While it's far from hagiographic in its portrayal of the king of rock n roll, Priscilla isn't the hatchet job many Elvis fans might have feared. More so than any previous biopics, Coppola makes it clear that Elvis's most toxic behaviour, which stops just short of physical violence, is a symptom of his drug addiction. Elordi's Elvis is a Frankenstein's monster, and Coppola isn't interested in offering him up to a torch-wielding mob. Just as Priscilla is a victim of Elvis, the superstar is himself a prisoner of a highly controlled marketing campaign. Whenever he gets off the phone with an unseen Colonel Tom Parker, Elordi seems to shed a foot from his lanky frame. There have been better portrayals of Elvis the star, but Elordi might be the first actor to really capture Elvis Presley the boy, more preen and pout than twist and shout. This is a tale of two kids who had their teen years stolen from them, pioneers who forged a path through a jungle of celebrity that would consume many who followed them.

Priscilla is on MUBI UK now.

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