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Elyse DurhamDecember 11, 2023
Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi as Priscilla and Elvis Presley at their wedding in a scene from the film ‘Priscilla’Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi in ‘Priscilla’ (A24)

What, exactly, is marriage? For those of us raised on romcoms, it’s the union of soulmates, two people who satisfy each other’s every need. If current divorce rates are any indication, this idea isn’t sustainable. It’s lonely being up on such a high pedestal. Perhaps nobody learned this quite like Priscilla Presley.

At its outset, Priscilla’s story sounds like a teenage daydream: girl meets Elvis, Elvis falls in love, girl gets whisked off to Graceland. But as Sofia Coppola reveals in her new film “Priscilla,” marrying your idol is anything but dreamy.

Like all of Coppola’s films, “Priscilla”is a sensual feast, featuring lush textures, a bright soundtrack, and a wardrobe budget on par with Melania Trump’s. The film’s opening shots—a girl’s bare feet sinking into plush pink carpet, Graceland’s pristine interiors, Priscilla applying her signature eyeliner—signal the opulence ahead. Still, there’s much more to this story than glamour. At its heart, “Priscilla” is about a woman lost in a twisted marriage.

There’s much more to this story than glamour. At its heart, “Priscilla” is about a woman lost in a twisted marriage.

Coppola built her career exploring this subject. She gravitates toward characters who are (miserably) married to powerful men: a newlywed abandoned in a luxurious Tokyo hotel (“Lost in Translation”), a SoHo mother who suspects her husband’s success masks cheating (“On the Rocks”), a young queen overwhelmed by court life (“Marie Antoinette”). Like each of these women, Priscilla realizes that being married to someone in the public eye can render you invisible—or, worse, as an object to be idolized, not a person to be loved.

Given this subject matter (aren’t celebrity biopics supposed to be tawdry?), Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship has surprisingly innocent beginnings. “He’s not like you think,” Priscilla tells her mother, who’s (understandably) alarmed that the king of rock ‘n roll has taken a shine to her 14-year-old. The first time Elvis invites Priscilla to his bedroom, they share only a kiss. “You don’t ever need to be afraid of me,” he assures her. It’s a promise he’ll break by the film’s end, but for now, he means it. He’s drawn to Priscilla’s innocence; later, he claims her virginity is sacred to him. He makes Priscilla promise she’ll stay exactly as she is.

It turns out he meant this quite literally—and this is where the film takes a darker turn. Priscilla is thrilled to come live at Graceland, but after Elvis heads off to Hollywood, she struggles to find her place in his world. She’s not allowed to invite friends over (“No strangers in Graceland,” Elvis’s father declares) or even play with her puppy on the lawn. “You can’t be out here making a public spectacle of yourself,” Elvis’s stepmother scolds, eyeing the eager fans peeking through Graceland’s gates. Seeking something of her own, Priscilla considers a part-time job, but Elvis rebuffs her. “You’ll have to forget about that,” he says. “When I call, I need you to be there for me.” He wants her to be a beautiful jewel in a box, locked away until he wants her.

Priscilla is thrilled to come live at Graceland, but after Elvis heads off to Hollywood, she struggles to find her place in his world.

Elvis’s possessiveness extends far beyond how Priscilla spends her time. He remakes her in his own image, dictating her wardrobe (all blues, no prints), her makeup (heavy eyeliner), and her hairstyle (an enormous bouffant, dyed black). They first fight after Priscilla dares to wear a printed dress. He demands she change, she curses him out. This scene is the first time we see Priscilla furious: perhaps it’s when she realizes Elvis doesn’t think of her as an equal. Gates, after all, keep people in as much as out.

Soon, even the couple’s sexual relationship (or lack thereof) turns sinister. At first, Elvis’s insistence on preserving Priscilla’s virginity during their courtship appears merely old-fashioned, even noble. But as Priscilla learns from tabloids and indiscreet notes tucked into jacket pockets, Elvis isn’t opposed to sex before marriage, or even outside their relationship—he just doesn’t want to have sex with her. Withholding sex is another way for him to control her.

As is often the case for people facing addiction, Elvis seeks this control more and more as his own life slips out from his grasp. When Priscilla questions Elvis’s fidelity, straying outside her role of the adoring fan who’s just happy to be at Graceland, Elvis tries to kick her out. When she offers a (solicited) opinion about Elvis’s music, he chucks a chair at her, missing her head by inches. All he wants is for her to exist quietly, without complaining, without demanding, without wanting anything at all—to be mute, like an idol. When he finally proposes, it feels like he’s just trying to get her to stay still.

When love careens into idolatry, it curdles into something poisonous. 

This subject matter, and the intense scenes that follow, could have easily veered into TV movie territory, but remarkable performances by Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi keep melodrama at bay. Spaeny’s vulnerability helps Priscilla believably age from 14 to 27; Elordi’s gentleness prevents Elvis from being flattened into mere monstrosity even as he descends into his personal hell. Coppola, a master visual storyteller, subtly marks Elvis’s worsening addiction by showing the number of prescription bottles on his nightstand. At the beginning of the film, it’s two or three; by the movie’s end, you can’t even see the nightstand anymore.

In the end, it’s the pills that drive Elvis and Priscilla apart. Early in their relationship, frightened by Elvis’s unpredictable aggression, Priscilla suggests he’s taking too many, but he won’t hear her. “My doctor takes care of me,” he says. “I don’t need an amateur opinion.” His inability to listen to her dooms their marriage—and, ultimately, his own life.

Consumed by his addiction, Elvis’s respect for Priscilla degrades to the point that he tries to force himself on her in a Las Vegas hotel room. The next morning, he doesn’t understand why his wife wants to leave him. “Have you lost your mind?” he says, still stupefied by last night’s pills. “You have everything a woman could want.”

By this point in the film, Coppola has gone out of her way to emphasize Priscilla's wealth: cars and furs and clothes galore, jet travel, even tiny colorful handguns to coordinate with each of her dresses. But for all this, Priscilla is lacking the one thing needful. Elvis doesn’t see her as a fellow human being with needs and desires and dignity all her own. At last, she understands that he never will.

“Am I losing you to another man?” Elvis asks.

“No,” she says. “You’re losing me to a life of my own.” In the next scene, she drives through Graceland’s gates one last time, and her expression changes from grief to relief to joy.

Like all of Coppola’s films about love, “Priscilla” reminds us that much more is at stake in a marriage than social status, the maintenance of a household or happiness itself. Marital love, at its best, can provide lifelong companionship, even a pathway to holiness. But when love careens into idolatry, it curdles into something poisonous. Forgetting this means forgetting how to love altogether.

More: Marriage

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