NEVADA CITY, Calif. November 7, 2023 – Here’s another reason for you to get out of the house and go to a movie: writer-director Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla (now showing at The Onyx this week), an exquisitely made, absorbing, and bittersweet variation on the durable ancient folktale that we now know as “Cinderella.”
The Cinderella of this film is a real-life one–Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) a bored, lonely fourteen-year-old Army brat who’s stuck in dreary late-1950s West Germany. One night, she meets her prince—not just any prince but an Army private who happens to be the most famous singer in the world–Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi).
Already an Elvis fan, Priscilla is struck dumb to be even walking on the same carpet. She’s struck even dumber when Elvis falls for her like a tree. But there are obstacles. One is their age difference (about ten years), the second is her rightfully reluctant parents. Finally, there’s Elvis’ overwhelming fame and its spiderweb of demands.
At Elvis’ touch, Priscilla’s life explodes with color. And with two hearts beating as one, love overcomes even the most sensible of obstacles. By this account, adapted from Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Presley’s intentions are fully sincere. After difficult negotiations with her straight-arrow parents, whom he treats with obsequious respect, the King sweeps the naïve teenager away and installs her as princess of Graceland, his garish castle and monument to self-indulgence for a man to whom fame came too fast and too soon.
And so, Cinderella becomes Rapunzel, a prisoner in this castle, and a fish out of water, gasping for breath. The castle seems to teem with ghosts who brush past her as an interloper (and remained undeveloped as characters). Outside of Elvis, she gets to know no one and hasn’t a friend in the world. She could well be a ghost, too. Rarely has the lap of luxury seemed so lonely and boring.
As Elvis’ consort, Priscilla lacks for nothing materially but in matters of the heart, the servings are meager. When he’s with her, they’re quite playful together and their bond seems real. But against the rest of the world–Elvis’ fans, his handlers, his posse, Colonel Parker, Hollywood–she can’t compete. There’s nothing he won’t buy Priscilla and he never outright abuses her, but he is passive, withdrawn, mercurial, neglectful, deceitful, philandering and manipulative, even remaking her as James Stewart tried to remake Kim Novak in Vertigo. He may indeed love her, but he’s unable to see her as much more than another doll in his toybox. Finally, he’s already in the clutches of the addictions that will both kill him and entrap young Priscilla.
Defying the sensory overload of Baz Luhrman’s Elvis (2022), Sofia Coppola plays it cool. She’s made the right choice. Elvis, as we remember, was hardly an exemplar of taste, but Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd damper the tackiness with muted sepia tones that keeps the focus on the drama behind the cacophony.
Thanks to Jacob Elordi’s sensitive performance, Presley does not come across as a total monster but as a deeply troubled young man who, like Priscilla, is far in over his head and even more a prisoner. In the end, she turns out to be the lucky one as even Elvis recognizes when it’s time to let her go, leaving him the biggest prisoner of all (though I prefer Luhrman’s rendering of the couple’s final encounter years later). The film lacks a strong finishing note, even as Dolly Parton sings “I Will Always Love You” (a song she wrote for Presley) on the soundtrack.
Coppola and music supervisor Thomas Mars were unable to secure the rights to Presley’s music, but, working with editor Sarah Flack, they overcome the problem with an excellent selection of other 1950s teen love songs that superbly underscore the passions that flood Priscilla following her first encounter with Elvis.
Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla does an excellent job following Priscilla’s journey from dowdy innocence through blowsy fashion doll to a place of maturity and grace. Though he doesn’t look much like the King, Elordi earns Elvis a measure of pity. As he seemed to in life (and as Luhrman portrayed in his film with Austin Butler) Elvis shrinks into a sad nothingness. The brighter his image became, the deeper the darkness that eventually swallowed him.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “McCain, the Stranger” is in the online version of Mystery Tribune. His article “Noir or Not?: Straw Dogs” is in the current issue of Noir City magazine. A freelance editor, he’s also the author of the short story “Lucky Day” in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press 2020), He’s also the author of Butchertown (Ambler House 2017), a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark.