Vague Visages’ Priscilla review contains minor spoilers. Sofia Coppola’s 2023 movie features Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi and Ari Cohen. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
When Sofia Coppola debuted The Virgin Suicides at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, it became a defining picture of girlhood. Since then, the American director has sharpened her skills as filmmaker, developing into the defining auteur on stories for and about young women. But nothing has necessarily felt as well-suited, story-wise, to her dreamy, blurred understanding of girlhood as The Virgin Suicides. So physically engrossing, it remains like a dream within a dream, an ode to American suburbia from the dying 20th century.
This is the (abridged and highly subjective) context for Priscilla’s debut at the Venice Film Festival. Coming startlingly soon after Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy, celebratory biopic Elvis, it deconstructs the myth of Graceland with as much vigor as Luhrmann built it. Priscilla Presley is a bored 14-year-old, living with her well-meaning parents at a military base in Germany, before she becomes the object of fascination for an already established Elvis Presley. What Coppola understands better than almost any other artist is how the mask of womanhood is assembled from the shattered tools of childhood. A fuschia nail polish, a velvet choker befitted with a gold heart — all symbols of youth, now determinedly repurposed to act as weapons of oncoming adulthood. And tragically, they are proof that innocence is already gone, relics of a past you will one day long to return to.
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To assist Coppola in embodying this new shade of tragedy is Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley opposite Jacob Elordi as Elvis. Though not a newcomer, this is the actress’ first lead role in a feature film, holding her in a spotlight that never wanders through the whole two hours. Spaeny’s rigidity — especially in the first half of Priscilla — is the perfect extension of Coppola’s curiosity regarding space and movement. The title character is perpetually lost in a sea of swirling bodies, all possessed by a sense of purpose she struggles to channel. They often act befuddled at her almost robotic stillness, whistling around her and expect no pushback in return.
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Something that sets Coppola apart from other directors equally interested in the trappings of femininity is the sense of impenetrable loneliness which cocoons her heroines. For this filmmaker, the journey from child to woman is one bound up in the isolation of being watched, each new development measured against the ideal of what one should be. For Priscilla, this pressure is especially acute, the self-fashioned armor of her identity cracking under unwanted comments from Elvis and his team, then sealed with his unwarranted advice. In an exchange between the couple before Elvis is set to return home, he instructs Priscilla to “stay the way you are now.” It’s a statement so bizarrely cruel, highlighting that the stillness of Spaeny’s character — captured so exactingly by Coppola — can be interpreted as an open ending, a blank page for Elvis to engrave his story into.
Priscilla Review: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘Elvis’
Emily St. James once surmised in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) episode of the Blank Check podcast that part of the film’s brilliance lies in its assertion that women will always understand men, and men will never understand women. Priscilla embodies that logic (as do all of Coppola’s films.) It is no wonder that the movie builds to a holding shot of the protagonist heroically driving from Graceland, no longer standing still enough to teach Elvis where he begins and ends, instead carving a new path, literally self-directing her way through the world.
Anna McKibbin (@annarosemary) is a freelance film critic. She received a journalism MA from City University and specializes in pop culture. Anna has written for London Film School, Film Cred and We Love Cinema.
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