With “PRISCILLA” Sofia Coppola offers up an alternative version of history | FILM REVIEW

Sofia Coppola has a precise directing style that keeps her unique and solidifies her as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. The Oscar-winning director gives her films an artfully European aura. Graceful and ambient, her characters are crafted with precision and honesty and exist in an almost celestial cinematic world. For her latest film, “Priscilla” to come up so emotionally empty is disappointing.

Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 biography “Elvis and Me,” Coppola’s work seeks to remove the fairy tale legend of Priscilla and the Rock and roll icon. The film’s focus falls on the truth of Priscilla’s world during that time: the forced solitude and mental abuse, the fact that she is a security blanket for an insecure man-child, and the reality of her being a controlled child bride. “Priscilla” spans fourteen years in the life of young Priscilla Ann Wagner (Cailee Spaeny) from the moment she meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi) in Germany, where both he and Priscilla’s father were stationed. These early moments exist in an almost ethereal world, as the young girl’s head is symbolically in the stars. The celebrity she worships is now her reality, and Priscilla is completely intoxicated.

What the film does well is taking Priscilla through starstruck idol worship to a whirlwind romance and, ultimately, to emotionally damaging codependency. Without preaching or finger waving, Sofia Coppola doesn’t shy away from the fact that a twenty-something man seduced (and controlled) a thirteen-year-old girl while completely robbing her of her innocence. Still, she merely skims the core of their love affair. The emotions are too muted to achieve real depth, while the film’s scope (broader than the director’s other projects) robs “Priscilla” of any dramatic intimacy.

Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography becomes another hindrance. Coppola and her cameraman shoot everything too dark. While the emotions are already muted, the dreary design causes the film to fade further into the background of disinterest. Thematically and in its visual style, the entire exercise is stilted.

Cailee Spaeny does well enough in the title role, capturing a certain wide-eyed innocence as she slides naturally into Priscilla’s forced “growing up too soon.” If, at times, Spaeny seems aloof, it is no fault of the actress. Coppola’s screenplay is an overly muted feature-length photo album of moments, snapshots of a fourteen-year relationship. Actors wander through scenes, wearing their emotions in only movement and sparse dialogue. This pantomime doesn’t work, keeping the audience at too far a distance. Jacob Elordi’s performance as Elvis can be impressive, but only in small doses. Elordi gets the singer’s wounded fidgeting and now and then captures the iconic cadence (until his Australian accent seeps out), but he doesn’t exude anything real. Something the young actor cannot capture is Elvis’ balance of boyish “aw shucks” charm mixed with the tortured soul and volatile personality that made him so complex. Portrayed here, the legend is a depressive and somber caricature with no attainable humanity.

Always a patient director with a refined sensibility that is most welcome, Coppola is too economical in her filmmaking this time. The movie feels disjointed, moving quickly from scene to scene, further alienating itself from its drama. Where filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick (and usually Sofia Coppola) find philosophical potency in cinematic silences, “Priscilla” exists as a film where actors wander. At the same time, cameras follow without hitting any dramatic impact.

Coppola does well with the early moments of “Priscilla,” capturing the tenderness of Priscilla’s courtship with Elvis. Although we understand what their relationship will become, Spaeny finds some good moments as she goes from youthful shyness to full-on Elvis’s girlfriend. There is a sweetness surrounding these scenes that allows the actress a natural canvas to craft her character. Unfortunately, the screenplay hits a wall early and never recovers. Where the director seeks to peel back the myth surrounding these two and get to the truth of their bonding, she becomes a tease who fails to deliver on that promise. Coppola’s film becomes anecdotal, firing off bullet points and moving on to the next one before the audience is given a chance to take it all in.

In her best films (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette”), Coppola’s characters find meaning in the skewed and dreamlike worlds they inhabit. Telling a real person’s story would only deepen her screenwriting skills. Unfortunately, the script, its actors, and the film are empty.

“Priscilla” is a film that deserves positive acknowledgment for showing the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla as less than a fairy tale. The young girl was manipulated and used by a broken man, robbing her of a natural life. The honesty in showing the truth of their relationship is where Coppola’s film is at its most poignant.

The movie nevertheless fails. What works so well in the director’s other works is awkward here. The sporadic contemporary music (done with purpose in “Marie Antoinette”) doesn’t seem to work. Coppola’s husband’s band Phoenix provides the out-of-place tunes and the dreamlike ambient score. Some period tunes are used well, but the film’s final moment, where a popular Dolly Parton song is played to enhance emotion, becomes comically desperate.

Much praise to Cailee Spaeny for doing good work in a role crafted with too much detachment. The actress stands as the only genuinely memorable takeaway from the film.
Sofia Coppola is a great filmmaker, one of the finest working today. Distinctive and supremely talented, her films are always an event.

With “Priscilla” a truth comes to light: even the most significant filmmakers have their stumbles.


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