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In 'Priscilla,' we see what 'Elvis' left out

Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi star in <em>Priscilla. </em>
Philippe Le Sourd
Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi star in Priscilla.

It's hard to imagine many viewers going into Sofia Coppola's Priscilla completely cold, with no preconceived notions about Elvis Presley or at least a vague awareness of his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu. That marriage, like nearly every other facet of the superstar entertainer's life, has become the stuff of legend, kept lingering in the cultural ether by Priscilla herself and countless Elvis biographies and biopics.

And if one knows even the slightest bit about this relationship – that it was initially sparked when she met him at a house party in 1959 during his military stint in Germany; he was 24, and she was just 14 at the time – then the premise of Priscilla may suggest a taboo minefield, albeit an intriguing one. There's the danger of falling into a romanticizing trap, of downplaying just how stark the age difference was, of giving Elvis a pass because they were in love, or something like it.

There's no need to worry about that, mercifully. Coppola's glistening and brooding dissection of Priscilla's life with Elvis reveals a clear-eyed vision for depicting the intoxication of fame and how easily it's wielded upon the young and impressionable. The filmmaker's script, adapted from Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, immerses its audience in the perspective of its subject as a young girl, played here with emotional resonance by Cailee Spaeny. (Presley is also an executive producer on the film.) The casting is spot-on: Spaeny may be in her mid-20s, but she's impressively (and eerily) convincing in the role of adolescent Priscilla, possessing a youthful and almost cherubic face and a winsome, awestruck energy. Her performance, too, is striking in its ability to convey the in-betweenness of that age, of lacking? self-confidence while striving for even a whiff of independence.

The film shows what it's like to fall under the spell of a much older and powerful person during your most formative years.
/ Sabrina Lantos
Sabrina Lantos
The film shows what it's like to fall under the spell of a much older and powerful person during your most formative years.

As Priscilla meets and falls in love with the biggest star in the world at the time (Jacob Elordi, reprising his wounded-and-corrosive Euphoria vibes), the experience takes off like a '50s-era white girl's teenage dream. (Frequent Coppola collaborator Philippe Le Sourd goes for that glossy Super 8-ish aesthetic.)

But like an arthouse-y version of a Lifetime movie – and I mean this as a sincere compliment – that fantasy incrementally morphs into a dramatic blueprint for emotional abuse and the confines of patriarchal domesticity. Once Priscilla is living full-time at Graceland during her senior year of high school, with her parents' permission, she lives an isolated, lonely existence; when not ostracized by classmates, she's expected to spend the rest of her waking hours sitting around the compound, waiting by the phone for whenever Elvis calls her from the road.

Her limited in-person time with him further emphasizes their disconnect; his bro-y entourage is always around, and he dictates every aspect of their relationship, including her hair, dress, and intimacy. (He rejects her sexual advances, claiming he'll know when the time is "right." Meanwhile, she bitterly reads the gossip mags as rumors swirl about his various on-set affairs with his age-appropriate movie co-stars like Ann-Margret.) He gets her addicted to pills and descends into physical abuse.

Baz Luhrmann's polar opposite of a spectacle, Elvis, cast the singer in a sympathetic, near-infantilizing light (and hardly mentioned his wife); in Priscilla, though, the so-called king of rock-and-roll emerges looking like an egotistical, manipulative dirtbag as a romantic partner. Priscilla ultimately finds herself trapped inside a glass menagerie of Elvis's making, and the mental suffocation is palpable.

A montage effectively highlights the experience of an imbalanced pairing, what it's like to get sucked into someone else's life. At one point, Coppola cycles through the repetitive images of the couple lying around in bed, with daylight melting into dark and into daylight again, and the maid dropping off and leaving a meal tray, and dropping off and leaving a meal tray again and again.

Coppola's insular approach to the material is so engrossing that when the screen abruptly cuts to black and the credits roll just as a 20-something Priscilla leaves Elvis and Graceland for good, it's maddeningly frustrating. The biopic subject remains shrouded in utter mystery, while her husband is colored in with more shades of grey. The deliberate choice to end the film just as she's starting to reclaim her own life undercuts the power of that final scene, especially since we never get a glimpse of who she was in the few short years she lived before the musician entered her life.

Though that's the point, it seems: This is what it's like to fall under the spell of a much older and powerful person during your most formative years. Has the real-life Priscilla ever landed upon a sense of self apart from Elvis? One can hope, yet it remains true that in the public's perception, she'll always be inextricably tethered to his memory. Priscilla only reiterates this sad truth.

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Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.