Producers: Sofia Coppola, Lorenzo Mieli and Youree Henley Director: Sofia Coppola Screenplay: Sofia Coppola Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Tim Post, Olivia Barrett, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Daniel Beirne, Luke Humphrey, Dan Abramovici, R Austin Ball, Evan Annisette, Raine Monroe Boland, Emily Mitchell and Stephanie Moore Distributor: A24
The Priscilla of the title is of course Priscilla Presley, and Sophia Coppola’s film about her life, based on the 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me” (written with Sandra Harmon) and starring Cailee Spaeny in the title role and Jacob Elordi as Elvis, looks wonderful, with a lovingly detailed period production design by Tamara Deverell and costumes by Stacy Battat, luminous in the gorgeous cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd.
But as directed by Coppola and edited by Sarah Flack, the film comes across like the cinematic equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, a series of elegant little tableaux that slowly pass before our eyes, one fading out into the next. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s hyper spectacle “Elvis,” it’s staid and static, mimicking the painterly style of “Barry Lyndon” without the heft that Kubrick brought to that epic about another doomed marriage. The result is neither dramatically nor emotionally satisfying, the approach sapping the film of much of its energy.
Like a chronologically arranged, finely illustrated Wikipedia entry, the film begins with Priscilla Beaulieu’s childhood. The stepdaughter of a spit-and-polish army Captain Paul Beaulieu (Ari Cohen), who married her mother Ann (Dagmara Domińczyk) after the death of Priscilla’s father, the girl meets Elvis when she’s fourteen in 1959. She’s sitting demurely at the counter of a diner on the German army base where her stepfather’s recently been posted, and a young officer (Luke Humphrey) approaches her to ask if she’d care to go to a party at Presley’s house with him and his wife. Her parents reluctantly say yes, she meets the twenty-four year old superstar, and thus begins a twelve-year relationship that, as presented here, was peculiar indeed, with a bit of “Lolita” here, a bit of “Vertigo” there, and an overarching theme of male dominance. The sequence of brief scenes continues to their breakup in 1972.
There is an arc to the series: that of a naïve young woman who falls under the influence of an older, but emotionally stunted, man who shows himself determined to control every aspect of her appearance and her life. When she first meets Elvis and becomes, for lack of a better term, the object of his obsession, Priscilla is naturally starstruck over his celebrity, but also moved by his vulnerability and charmed, as her parents come to be, by his awkward gentility; he confesses that he recently lost his mother, with whom he was very close, and insists on maintaining a chaste relationship with her until he leaves Germany for home in 1960.
The next two years are difficult for Priscilla, as contact with Presley is sporadic and reports of his affairs with other women, some his co-stars in the movies he’smaking, circulate. But in 1962 he suggests that she visit him at Graceland, and her parents allow the trip; it eventually turns into her permanent residence, during which she completes her high school education (with some use of Presley’s influence on the school and Priscilla’s willingness to convince classmates to help her surreptitiously) and he introduces her to the drugs he’s already using.
But while he dotes on her, dictating her choice of wardrobe, her hairstyles, and her lifestyle in general, his insistence on absolute control becomes ever more apparent, as does his penchant for ignoring her when he chooses rowdy horseplay with his always-present entourage and leaving her alone in splendid solitude when he goes off to make more movies—which, when his youthful hopes of emulating Marlon Brando and James Dean prove a dream unfulfilled, merely provide more opportunities for rumored involvements with other women. Still, they wed in 1967 and have their only child the following year, after which the marriage deteriorates, with infidelities on both sides.
All of this is played out in Coppola’s succession of short, elegant but curiously bloodless tableaux, in which only Spaeny and Elordi are afforded much prominence, with virtually everyone else relegated to what amounts to walk-ons (or, in the case of Colonel Parker, a single phone-in). Spaeny in particular impresses, but the performance still has a slightly pinched quality, her ability to emote restricted by the rigidity of the film’s approach. Elordi is handicapped by the absence of any performance scenes—he’s shown leaving in his tour bus, but not on any stages—but the focus is on Elvis’ intimate life with Priscilla, after all, rather than his music-making; and Elordi conveys Presley’s moodiness and explosive temper In a fashion expressive of both his volatility and his arrested-development boyishness. He also towers over Spaeny physically (indeed, more than in real life), a form of cinematic shorthand that visually emphasizes his dominance of her.
One can certainly appreciate the actors’ efforts, as well as those of the technical crew. They all work diligently to realize Coppola’s stylistic vision—a vision that’s sumptuous but unfortunately impedes the dramatic urgency the viewer inevitably longs for.