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Priscilla: Sofia Coppola’s intoxicating film is her best movie in 20 years

All this is presented within the sort of tastefully persuasive package that only Sofia Coppola can manage

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Director: Sofia Coppola
Cert: 15A
Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Dominczyk, Ari Cohen, Tim Post, Emily Mitchell, Raine Monroe Boland
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins

The latest intoxicating film from Sofia Coppola is, in a sense, a universal tale for teenagers the world over. The first whispers of love. The anxiety that accompanies a step into adulthood. The pulling away of comfortable delusions. True, this is a story of a romance between (initially) a 14-year-old and the most famous man in the world. But that heightening only presses home the momentary stresses of more everyday traumas.

Maybe that doesn’t quite work as a thesis. Coppola, as so often, deals in suppressed shades and muted voices. Philippe Le Sourd’s camera allows no flash or bling to attend Priscilla Presley’s odyssey from shy schoolgirl to the most watched – and, given the toxic nature of fame, most hated – romantic partner of her era. To reference a then-incoming competitor for that title, there is something of Natalie Portman’s Jacqueline Kennedy about her deadened, sidelined existence. As in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, the protagonist carries an unexpressed emotional trauma about largely uncomprehending male company. Plenty of women will understand that. But we are always here aware that Pricilla is at the hidden heart of a world-dominating maelstrom. So not entirely a universal story, then.

We begin in 1959 with Priscilla enduring a quiet life with her military family in West Germany. One day, asked if she likes Elvis, she quips back as if asked if she breathes oxygen. “Of course, who doesn’t?” she replies. (“Well, duh!” as a 1980s equivalent might echo.) She is taken to a party where Elvis is in inarticulate command. Something weirdly like courtly love develops. Her parents agree to controlled meetings. He swears that nothing too carnal will take place. Eventually she and her beehive are transported to marital compromises at Graceland.

Cailee Spaeny, who won best actress for her performance at Venice International Film Festival, gives us someone who, though manipulated and (for once, the word is appropriate) gaslighted from early in the relationship, always has an inkling that something is not quite right. Her eventual departure from the relationship – to a cunningly chosen song by one of Priscilla’s contemporaries – is presented as an act of notable courage. It’s a cunning performance that makes implicit bargains with the audience. “Stay with me and I’ll unlock mysteries.”


The enormous Jacob Elordi, having a seductive 2023 with both this and Saltburn, makes something frustratingly elusive of Elvis. Working without any of the singer’s songs could have been a nightmare, but Coppola and Randall Poster, her music supervisor, make a virtue of the absence. Inspired choices such as The Ramones’ version of Baby, I Love You remind us we are in a retrospectively processed version of the 1960s. The lack of any Elvis tunes strips the character of distracting glamour. We are forced to focus on the insecure, pill-pushing, revolver-discharging baby he is at home. Some may long for more explicit denunciation of what we would now call grooming, but Coppola is keen to get us behind Priscilla’s eyes. The ambiguity is her subjective ambiguity – something she eventually shakes off. The depiction of deceptively polite, good-old-boy control is ultimately chilling.

All this is presented within the sort of tastefully persuasive package that only Sofia Coppola can manage. Comparisons with Marie Antoinette are unavoidable, but, here, the beautiful objects are, rather than treasures, everyday items rendered romantic by the passing of decades (not centuries). A Pan Am ticket. A compact. “Hand-made” lashes. The nagging fear is that Priscilla herself may become one of these period properties. Something else to place upon the mantel at Graceland.

It hardly needs to be said the film acts as a complement to Baz Luhrman’s brash, celebratory Elvis. It is all the better for its inward focus. It is Coppola’s best film in 20 years.

Pricilla is in cinemas nationwide from New Year’s Day, with exclusive 35mm screenings at the Light House Cinema, Dublin, from Wednesday, December 27th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist