Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla

Cailee Spaeny in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023)

At a party celebrating the launch of her new book, Sofia Coppola Archive: 1999–2023, the director told IndieWire last month that she’s excited to see what Cailee Spaeny will do next. Spaeny had just won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress in Venice for her portrayal of Elvis Presley’s frightfully young girlfriend and wife in Coppola’s Priscilla. “I loved her performance and it’s everything that I hoped to express in this film,” said Coppola, adding, “Priscilla really felt like she represented her experience.”

Spaeny tells W’s Lynn Hirschberg that she’s had “an obsession with Sofia” ever since she first saw Coppola’s debut feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999). “That movie rocked me in a way that I had never felt before.” It was Kirsten Dunst, who first worked with Coppola on The Virgin Suicides, who recommended Spaeny when Coppola told her she was writing an adaptation of Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me. Spaeny had made an impression on Dunst when they were working together on Alex Garland’s forthcoming action movie, Civil War.

In the fall of 1959, Priscilla Beaulieu was fourteen and living with her mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) and stepfather (Ari Cohen) on an American military base in West Germany when she was approached in a diner by a young man who wondered if she might want to meet Elvis Presley. Already one of the biggest stars on the planet, Elvis (Jacob Elordi) was immediately smitten with this ninth-grader when she appeared at a party he was throwing at his house, and dialing up the southern charm, he persuaded her parents to allow him to keep on seeing her. But as the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin points out, “nothing can quite prepare you for how much of an Elvis film Priscilla is not.”

When he heads back to the States to record more hits and make more movies, Priscilla is left alone with her homework and the fan magazines breathlessly updating her on Elvis’s latest flings with his costars. But Elvis and Priscilla stay in touch, and eventually, remarkably, he persuades her parents to allow Priscilla to move in with him at Graceland. “The lure of Priscilla, for Elvis, is the blankness of her slate,” writes Jessica Kiang for Sight and Sound, “and how willing she is to be nothing for anyone else, and everything only for him. It must seem like such a small price to pay for the sublimation of every teenage fangirl’s dream. The irony is that Elvis will make her change everything about herself, where she lives, who she talks to, even the color of her hair.”

There are pills, uppers for the daytime and downers for the nighttime—one of them knocks Priscilla out for two days straight—and no sex before marriage, and even after, none again for a while after the birth of their daughter, Lisa Marie. For weeks on end, Priscilla is left alone in the mansion with Elvis’s bossy parents. “It all sounds horrible, and it is,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “But Coppola makes it clear, as Elvis and Me does, that nestled within the darkness of this union was an incomparable tenderness, something Priscilla Presley could never get over.”

“Coming just over a year after Austin Butler put a memorable stamp on the role in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “Elordi finds his own way into the character, pouring seductive charm and undeniable magnetism into the sad eyes and sleepy speech patterns. But he never shies away from the more off-putting traits—the fits of pique, the petulance, the evasiveness and dishonesty.” Spaeny’s performance “becomes increasingly moving once Priscilla’s rose-colored glasses are permanently off and her isolation is compounded.”

For all the dramatic turns taken before Priscilla finally declared her independence at the age of twenty-eight, as Leonardo Goi points out in the Notebook, there are “no ‘big’ moments here, no sensationalistic monologues where the young woman can unleash her rage. Sarah Flack’s editing makes ample use of fade outs, which turn the film into a series of hazy recollections. Classic as Priscilla may outwardly seem, it stands out as an invigorating example of all that one can achieve with the most formulaic of genres, a portrait that keeps spilling and growing well beyond its borders.” Jessica Kiang calls Coppola “our foremost auteuse of a youthful, frilled femininity that is so invested in obvious signifiers it becomes borderline subversive; so full of love for the way things look that it becomes an examination of the way things are.”

The Centerpiece presentation at this year’s New York Film Festival, Priscilla will screen at five theaters in the city tomorrow before returning this Sunday and the next. The UK premiere is slated for Monday and Tuesday in London, and Priscilla will open in theaters on November 3.

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