An early draft of this review was originally published on November 8, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
Subscribe, and you’ll read many of these reviews while the films are still breaking news!

Does the camera love Cailee Spaeny’s Priscilla Presley more than any young protagonist in Sofia Coppola’s filmography?

That would be quite a claim to make. Let’s see:

  • Kirsten Dunst’s cloistered Lux Lisbon is angelic and ethereal in The Virgin Suicides (1999)
  • Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte in Lost in Translation (2003), tender and pensive in dark hotel rooms and the amber glow of hotel lounges
  • Dunst is a canvas for mischievous makeovers as Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • In Somewhere (2010), Elle Fanning’s Cleo has the wide-eyed curiosity of a four-year-old in a teenager’s undecided definition.
  • Audacious trespassers and thieves, fronted by Emma Watson strong-willed ringleader in The Bling Ring (2013), invest so willfully in superficial surfaces that the void behind their flirtatious gazes is funny and frightening
  • And the candlelit frills-and-lace dresses of Fanning, Dunst, and Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled (2017) seem like a wounded soldier’s morphine-induced dream.

So many incredible actresses. So many indelible performances. And all of them captured with reverence through Coppola’s loving lenses.

Nevertheless, I’m going to say yes: Spaeny, convincingly playing a 14-year-old dressed up to look 24, and respectfully adored by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, is so magnetic in every scene of Priscilla that even Jacob Elordi’s Elvis almost dissolves when she’s onscreen beside her.

Right away, Coppola has her audience right where she wants us: We want to intervene and save Spaeny’s Priscilla from the cyclone of celebrity that is going to carry her out of her Kansas and into Elvis’s Oz, while at the same time we cannot wait to see how fame and fortune transform her into an influential icon envied by women twice or three times her age. This is, as they call it in this buzzy business, “a star-making performance.” And that adds yet another layer of conflict to the proceedings: We’re watching Spaeny’s ascent to superstar status even as she brings to life a cautionary tale about that very thing.

Cailee Spaeny is almost too convincing as a starstruck 14-year-old in Priscilla. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

From the moment we see her in the diner at the film’s opening — lonely, vulnerable, a tangle of teenage uncertainties, thinking she knows better than her parents (as we all did at that age), and failing to conceal her restless longings — we’re hooked. There’s a Disney Princess light in her eyes. We have no doubt that a global superstar, one so worshipped and successful that nobody dares deny him anything, will notice this walking “I Want” song. We have no trouble believing that — even though (cue the Michael Caine accentshe’s only 14 years old! — the Beast will seize upon the Beauty as his ideal and lock her up in his palace like a trophy. It’s discomforting because we disapprove of this before it happens, and yet we ourselves cannot wait for it to happen. Spaeny has the rare and mysterious power that defines iconic actresses, and we’re already longing to see all of the versions of Barbie to Elvis’s Ken that she can become.

This trouble — hating what’s happening even as we’re mesmerized — sticks with us through the whole two hours: It’s painful to watch as Priscilla’s parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) lose their feeble resolve to protect their daughter from the charms of the circling celebrity. They’re easily seduced, as she is, by Elvis’s magnetism. And while it’s one of cinema’s most familiar tragic story arcs — a young woman doomed to serve as a dress-up doll for a manipulative and self-destructive Svengali in a world made for men — it’s as potent and relevant as ever.

Like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth playing a girl who asserts her intelligence against a towering, fantastical rock star, Spaeny’s performance as a Priscilla who dares to talk back to Elvis is likely to make a lasting impression. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

In Coppola’s lush, dreamlike recreation of Priscilla Presley’s own testimony (the film is based on her own memoirs), we watch the young, starstruck, and frightfully naive young Priscilla Ann Wagner become the live-in (and, thus, housebound) girlfriend of “the King of Rock and Roll”; wander those Graceland corridors in a downward spiral of debilitating loneliness and uncertainty; demand reassurance after his early affairs come to light; win his worthless vows of devotion and fidelity; and become the mother of his child. Her charismatic controller orders her not to change, but we know it’s impossible: He’s captured a human being in her most transitional and formative years. Ever so slowly, she will writhe in the realization of the trap into which she has walked so willingly, so eagerly, so naively. As her self-knowledge grows, so does her doubt about his declarations of devotion — and this kindles a dissatisfaction over the freedoms he enjoys but she is denied. She inevitably becomes for Elvis a conscience, so long as he’s willing to tolerate one; and thus, she’s an intensifying reminder of his vanity.

We should have seen this movie coming: it’s the perfect match of subject and artist. Sofia Coppola makes movies about young women who live in varying states of isolation, their perspectives and priorities shaped and misshapen by the bubbles in which they grow up.

An iconic image recreated by Sofia Coppola, Cailee Spaeny (as Priscilla), and Jacob Elordie (as Elvis). [Image from the A24 trailer.]

It was a bubble of parental over-protection and control in The Virgin Suicides. Bubbles created by show business stranded the protagonists of Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Politics, patriarchy, and wealth kept Marie Antoinette in captivity. The women of The Beguiled are stranded in wartime isolation, but they’re also bound up in the systemic misogyny of their culture.

In all of these contexts, film critics keep on finding good reason to speculate about Coppola’s attraction to such stories. After all, she grew up in a sort of fantasy world herself, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and a part of that American show business dynasty. Her movies have always seemed like testimony by way of creative analogy. It’s clear that she’s wide awake to the alluring and dangerously distorting effects of such privilege, as well as to the ways in which girls can lose agency under the close watch of controlling father figures. And her movies sometimes follow their restless captives in some kind of search for escape into something that seems more authentic.

It’s surprising that she didn’t bring Princess Diana to the screen before Pablo Larrain made Spencer. It seemed a perfect biopic subject for her after Marie Antoinette — but would it have been too similar a project?

The same question aggravates me a bit as I reflect on Priscilla. It has a lot in common with Spencer, so much so that I wonder if a double feature of the films would make for a fascinating study or seem merely redundant. And it has such tremendous thematic and aesthetic overlap with all of Coppola’s previous work, that it’s beginning to feel like this auteur’s filmography has become something of a bubble in itself, one I’d like to see her break free from. (2020’s On the Rocks, with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, was something of a departure in subject and style, but that film felt more like something she made casually, improvisationally, and for fun between more serious features.) Priscilla, like all of the young women who look so good in such dehumanizing contexts, enchants us through what critic Hannah Strong calls Coppola’s “hyper-feminine aesthetic,” a “surface appeal” that seduces even as we realize that it’s draped over “a desire for freedom at any cost.”

Mobbed by Elvis fans, Priscilla stands alone holding the secrets of Elvis’s heart. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

I’m beginning to sense some diminishing returns in this redundancy: One might be tempted to say that Coppola is so in love with the glory of these toxic fantasy lands that the greater effect of her work is to increase their gravitational pull rather than to instill in us a wisdom about the abuse that takes place there. In her New York Film Festival capsule review, Veronica Fitzpatrick notes that “Priscilla is best when it’s sensual, not didactic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do both.” She’s right, and this may be most evident in a scene where Elvis condemns Priscilla’s preferences in outfits, strictly instructing her to wear only certain things that match his preferences. Spaeny is dazzling in these costumes, and in this context. And I started having PTSD flashbacks to that nightmarish scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where Scotty forces Judy to wear certain things and do her hair a certain way, dismissing the dress she clearly prefers. But isn’t the movie itself clearly taking most of its pleasure in, and investing most of its energy in, aestheticizing Priscilla as a ’60s fashion icon? Hitchcock’s focus is on the psychosis at work in this dynamic. Coppola’s, someone might persuasively argue, is on the pleasure of deciding for ourselves which dress is most enchanting on Spaeny. Fitzpatrick herself also admits that the movie is “unable to help itself from doing what it wants to critique.” I’m not quite ready to defend the film against any concerns that, on the subject of the objectification of women, it might be doing more harm than good.

Still, artists are who they are — they come from somewhere, they know certain important things based on their experience, and, by virtue of the limits of those experiences, they don’t know other important things. We love to find those threads that connect individual entries in a visionary director’s portfolio, threads that give the body of work a recognizably human voice. It would be presumptuous to expect movies from Sofia Coppola that aren’t somehow rooted in her most fundamental sympathies. Isn’t that often the dichotomy of auteurism? We expect to see manic neuroses, narcissism, self-destructive amorality, and even pedophilia in Woody Allen movies, and I’ve given hoping to see some kind of breakthrough, any story about an awakening conscience from him. Nevertheless, I always hope to have a sense that an artist is growing — not only in their abilities but in their curiosities and wisdom. And I think Coppola has explored stories like this before in ways that have offered richer rewards.

Elvis and his underaged girlfriend on one of their booze- and drug-fueled adventures: This isn’t a side of Elvis we were allowed to think about in last year’s Baz Luhrmann epic. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

What would interest me most is seeing what kind of story she might tell about the “After” of this movie’s “Before.” Unlike Coppola (apparently), I’m not as interested in Priscilla’s angst as I am by what she might become when those bending borders finally break under pressure. We are so well-versed, as moviegoers, in the plight of the princess trapped in a tower. And that brings a sense of frustrating stasis to the whole affair. While Spaeny, who I cannot help but see as a miniature Natalie Portman/Shailene Woodley hybrid, is an exquisite avatar — not only for Priscilla herself, but for any promising young woman seduced by a fantasy* — I cannot shake the sense that we’re not really getting a strong sense of her capacities as an actress, as Coppola keeps her bound up in iconographic poses.

I should pause here to acknowledge that one of the movie’s most surprising and unsettling effects is how it so quickly and so convincingly turned me against the very Elvis for whom I was feeling empathy and admiration just a few months ago watching Baz Luhrmann’s ElvisPriscilla, more than any film I can remember seeing in recent years, has revealed to me how susceptible I am to a strong filmmaker’s rhetoric. What do I really make of Elvis Presley, perhaps the most definitive American icon? At this point, I don’t know. But insofar as Presley’s testimony via Coppola’s dramatization is credible, I have to revise my understanding of Elvis’s legacy going forward to reckon with these chapters, which expose an inexcusably predatory and exploitative aspect of his character.

As a tall, thin, moody Elvis, Jacob Elordi takes a note from Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Jacob Elordi’s performance as Elvis rarely adds up to more than a passable impression of the famously idiosyncratic star. The physical resemblance is not particularly convincing. (The astonishing performance by Austin Butler just last year is still so vivid in my memory that it’s hard not to be thinking of his superiority in every scene of this film.) Maybe if I’d seen Elordi’s work in Euphoria I might have a better sense of what drew Coppola to cast him. But in his cartoonishly lean and looming stature, he emphasizes just how dominant Elvis was in this relationship with a child; Coppola seems to know this and uses it to powerful effect. And for that, I am grateful. Moviegoers need balanced, nuanced studies of their cultural icons. Luhrmann’s Elvis had its virtues, but Coppola provides a much-needed counternarrative.

Much of the press around this film has focused on the fact that the Elvis estate refused to permit Coppola to use Elvis’s songs in her movie. But you know what? I’m glad. This movie gives the King just the right amount of attention, and we don’t need any reminders of his strengths here. Elvis has received more than his due when it comes to adoration and reward for his art. And this movie isn’t about him. Relying upon her familiar finesse with contemporary pop soundtracks, Coppola gives the film a perfectly gauzy, dreamy sound that enhances the melancholy of Priscilla’s state of suspension in superficiality.

Elvis might be asking for trouble, routinely gifting his pretty “pet” wife so many pretty pistols. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

In fact, it’s not imagery that I will remember about the film’s jarringly abrupt conclusion. It’s a song. Coppola’s talents as a playlist maker remains untouchable. In her deep-dive examination of the director’s musical journeys, Sydney Urbanek writes, “To think of Coppola’s early videos as a mere preamble to her features is to sidestep how she still cuts her action to accommodate the songs she loves rather than the other way around….” And Priscilla’s climactic needle drop is a knockout. Indeed, it’s the best thing about the finale. I’ll save the surprise for you to discover. Suffice it to say that I cheered when I realized what was playing, even though I wouldn’t learn until after the credits rolled that there are important historical motivations for applying that song to Priscilla’s prison break. (Look it up.) It’s an inspired choice for an otherwise underwhelming conclusion.

Is the song supposed to spell out for us what Priscilla is thinking as she makes her famous exit from Graceland and takes her first step into freedom and autonomy? I don’t know. I’m not sure what to make of the ending, actually. I come away more disappointed than intrigued, as that moment gave me a fleeting surge of hope that the story was about to take us somewhere new, into a glimpse of the woman Priscilla would become. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe Coppola can’t quite imagine a character outside of a dehumanizing bubble.

Larrain’s Spencer concludes with the same startling abruptness, and yet that final moment felt just right. For all of the creative license Larrain took with Diana’s historical account, and for all of the presumption he brought to his depiction of that icon’s interior life, he created for us a three-dimensional human being. His Diana is possessed of a fierce intelligence beyond the hairdos and dresses. We get more than just glimpses of who she really is in her intimate conversations with her assistants, and in moments of joy and tenderness with her children. The last image of Spencer is more complicated and interesting — and thus more memorable — as well. The runaway princess seems to have landed on another, equally challenging planet.

Is this what Coppola’s Barbie movie might have looked like? [Image from the A24 trailer.]

It’s interesting to me that two more of the year’s biggest movies conclude with their leading ladies turning their backs on the men who adore them and walking off into a future alone. It happens in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. And it happens even more memorably in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which concludes with a celebratory flourish, as Barbie begins to define herself beyond the context of a toxic co-dependency. It leaves me wondering what a Sofia Coppola Barbie movie might have looked like. I suspect it would have been soft, quiet, lush, luxuriant, and aching with melancholy. It would have indulged with greater reverence in hair, makeup, and costumes. It would have, come to think of it, been a lot like Priscilla.

* I was tempted to write this reflection as a comparison of Priscilla and that old Jim Henson/George Lucas rock-star-chasing-an-underaged-muse fairy tale Labyrinth.