Priscilla (2023) REVIEW – A Sumptuous Portrait of Stripped Personhood

Priscilla 2023 movie
Priscilla 2023 movie

It’s easy to see early on in Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me, why the Elvis estate attacked the film. The first scene, set in a diner on an American Base in Germany in 1959, sees fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) approached by a service member who invites her to a party at Elvis’s house. It’s a moment that sets off alarms from the start to anyone willing to ask the simple question: why would a fourteen-year-old be invited to a rock star’s house? The film never eases up on the alarms, even as it invites us into the gorgeously glamorous world Elvis (Jacob Elordi) makes available to Priscilla.

From their first moment on screen together he lords over her, emphasizing the ten year difference in their age and the social standing of a rock star compared to a random teenage girl. Coppola and her casting department’s choices for the 5’1” Spaeny and 6’5” Elordi to play the 5’4” Priscilla and 6’0” Elvis is obvious but effective. It’s one of many not exactly subtle, but far from explosive parts of the film that come together to paint a quiet and suffocating portrait of Priscilla’s life with Elvis.

It’s that quietness that makes the film so affecting. He’s quiet and seemingly romantic when he tells her to promise him she’ll “stay the way [she is] now” when he leaves Germany in 1960 and she’s 15. After she’s moved to Graceland and he’s frequently away, she expresses interest in getting a job at a local shop, he matter of factly responds “it’s either me or a career,” adding “when I call I need you to be there.” When the gossip magazines abound with stories about him and Ann-Margaret on the set of Viva Las Vegas, she questions him and he grows frustrated but keeps his cool as he questions her right back with, “I need a woman who understands, now you gonna be her or not?” When he tells her to dye her hair and wear more makeup, it’s done as a matter of course.

There are loud scenes, too, and though they are less frequent, it’s not their number that makes them less impactful than the quiet ones. It’s that they are so quickly followed by measured apologies and sweet words which grow increasingly unnerving as the pattern is repeated throughout the film.

Those bigger scenes which feature arms grabbed, curses shouted, and at one point a chair thrown fail to land as dramatically as we might expect because there’s no build up that they function as catharsis for. Priscilla as a whole never feels like a narrative with arcs or any sense of tension and release. The film functions as a series of moments without any momentum, which is certainly more true to life than most biopics. But combined with the film’s quiet approach, the lack of any narrativizing (so much so that it’s easy to lose track of when in time we are) leads to a film that feels somewhat inert.

That narrative inertness and the quietness of the film as a whole are Priscilla’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw. It’s not moments of drama or confrontation that are the most impactful and memorable. It’s moments where Priscilla is silent and Coppola combines, or rather the juxtaposes the visual and aural. When Priscilla joins Elvis at a dinner with co-stars from a recent film, the camera holds the small young woman in her own frame, surrounded by the sounds of a conversation she can’t take part in. The most gut-wrenching moment in the film pushes in even closer, filling the screen with the image of Priscilla’s fake eyelash as she struggles to place it shortly after waking Elvis for the arrival of their first child, while the sounds of a mansion-wide commotion led by Elvis overwhelms our ears.

These moments, and the entirety of the film, look stunning courtesy of Patricia Cuccia’s set decoration, Stacey Battat’s costumes, and Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography in a way that seems to ask: is it worth living in a “perfect” house if you have to be a doll? Before the first scene at the diner, the film opens on a pair of feet with perfectly pedicured red toenails walking along soft pink carpet before leading into a montage intercut with the film’s opening credits. The sequence feels remarkably similar to the first scenes of Barbie. It’s extremely unlikely Coppola paralleled that film about a doll realizing her beautiful life isn’t so perfect on purpose, but the parallel is there, and, like Priscilla’s wardrobe curated by Elvis, it fits all too well.

READ NEXT: Make the Case: 5 Best Stephen King Movies

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.

Priscilla 2023 movie
Priscilla paints a visually stunning and quietly devastating portrait of a young woman made to be an accessory more than a person.