By Lê Dũng
I had a lot of thoughts after the end of Priscilla, but the loudest voice in my head just wanted to ask a question: “Wait, that’s it? That’s the movie?
Sofia Coppola, the director of your favourite movies about affluent white women (also my favourite type of protagonist), whose works are often used as screenshots for Tumblr sad-posting along with the caption of Lana Del Rey’s lyrics, has finally released her much anticipated Priscilla, documenting the life of Priscilla Presley, wife of Elvis. And the movie left me with conflicting feelings and more questions than answers.
The story starts with Priscilla (played by Cailee Spaeny), who was then only 14 years old when she met the 24-year-old superstar Elvis Presley. They got into a relationship and later an abusive marriage, where her life was completely dependent on him. Coppola illustrates this power dynamic really well: from the literal physical differences between the two (in every scenes they share together, we are reminded of how “small” she is compared to an Elvis played by the giant Jacob Elordi), to their differences in age, in the way she is shown almost no outer life without him: every single person she interacts with seems to be interested in him or under his paycheck. Elvis controls every aspect of her life: her dresses, her make-up, how she talked and acted, and when he is “on tour”, Priscilla has nothing to do but read the tabloids and get dolled-up, waiting for him to come back. And of course, who could forget the physical violence that was inflicted upon her? Coppola’s portrayal of Elvis rather directly looks at his “dark” side, the more “domestic” side of the rockstar, compared to the star persona of Baz Luhrmann's Elvis last year. Pricilla was the direct victim of this “dark side”: wife to the King, living a prosperous life, in a position millions of women dream of, but is essentially isolating and reeks of emptiness and boredom – the ultimate of Sofia Coppola’s protagonist.
In contrast to the affluent queen of “Marie Antoinette” (a movie that I absolutely love), Priscilla just seems… empty in comparison
Empty. That is the word I used to describe the movie to all of my friends.
The whole movie is empty: we have an empty protagonist with almost no life of her own, empty promises from Elvis throughout the whole movie, empty space in Graceland (Elvis’s famous estate) with big white rooms that no one really lives in, empty conversations, and essentially, an empty story. In the end, when she decided to finally drive out of Graceland for a life of her own, I was left perplexed, because, as a whole, we did not really know Priscilla that well as a person, so the ending just… left the audience with no idea how to feel about this scene. From the beginning to the end, she is essentially the same person, still utterly obsessed with the men who just want to control her. And then she leaves, and the movie cuts to black with no further explanation. Sofia Coppola, in an attempt to imprison her protagonist, has confined Priscilla to a life so dependent on Elvis, so limiting that she seems to stop existing as her own. When she drove out of Graceland, I just wanted to ask “To go where?”, we did not know her enough to have an answer.
So, for better or for worse, Coppola gives Priscilla no inner life. Is it a deliberate choice to comment on the treatment of women (and of Priscilla in particular), or is it a result of our obsession with the persona and aesthetic of Priscilla Presley that we forget the real woman somewhere along the way? I don’t really have an answer.
Sam Bodrojan, a writer whose works I love, commented on her Substack that Priscilla is a movie about the fear that you as a woman had left nothing but “a superficial emptiness, a template for romanticising objects and songs and surfaces that mean nothing”. Is Priscilla the character a shell with all the pretty things put on her? Is she the idea of her winged eyeliner and iconic hairstyle? Or is Priscilla Presley, as the executive producer of this movie, and by extension, Sofia Coppola, the face of the sad girl aesthetic, acutely aware of the profound emptiness that this movie is projecting?
This review was written after an exclusive preview at de Ketelhuis in Amsterdam on December 11th, 2023.