In Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s sensitive, minor-key portrait of Elvis Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley, there’s a fleeting shot of the King (played by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi) performing onstage. His back is turned to the camera; as he opens his arms to the crowd before him, he lifts his signature cape and his body blocks out the lights.
It’s an unusual perspective. In the many depictions of the icon, Elvis tends to be seen the way his fans saw him: in the spotlight, with his artistry on full display. But Priscilla—as rendered by Coppola and embodied by Cailee Spaeny—had a different point of view. He was a silhouette, a shadow, a man she could not see clearly.
Melancholy young women searching for escape are one of Coppola’s favorite subjects, and Priscilla may be her most haunting endeavor thus far. The film, based on Priscilla’s memoir, Elvis and Me, tracks its subject for about a decade of her life, from the time she met her husband-to-be, when she was a 14-year-old ninth grader, to the moment she left him in her 20s. It’s a hazy look at Priscilla’s strange coming-of-age, living out a girlish fantasy while slowly grasping the limits that came with being Elvis’s object of affection. And while isolation has long been the thematic through line in Coppola’s films, here she illustrates the way one of the most storied romances in American history produced a delicate, terrible loneliness.
Like much of Coppola’s work—think of the muted pastels of Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, or the faded glow over The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides—Priscilla seems soft to the touch, as youthful as its heroine. The film opens with a series of close-ups: Priscilla’s bare feet on a pink carpet, before her hand carefully traces liquid eyeliner over her eyelids. She’s repeatedly outfitted in flimsy nightgowns, her hair done up. Elvis’s famous home, Graceland, also doesn’t look gaudy; it’s lit more like an impressionist painting, warm and shimmering. The master bedroom is the exception, with its dark drapes making Priscilla look especially luminous and fragile. She appears to be a doll, just another one of the many monogrammed, polished treasures found around the house.
But Priscilla is more than a story of a young woman in a gilded cage; it’s also an examination of how adolescent beliefs can be hard to shake. To Priscilla, nothing could have been more desirable than being worshipped by the most worshipped man alive. For a teenager growing up in the 1950s with no serious relationship experience, being admired by Elvis, a man 10 years older than she was, felt like the definition of romance. Millions of women would’ve killed to be Elvis’s bride, which is why she spent long days idly waiting for him to return home, with no clue what he was doing. She couldn’t leave Graceland to get a job, but Elvis provided her with comfort and adventure, taking her to Vegas, teaching her how to have a good time, launching childish pillow fights and playing dress-up in his room. Coppola meticulously constructs tableaus that show how Elvis’s adoration was, to Priscilla, practically miraculous. Scenes with him are full of color; without him, the world becomes drab and inert.
That changes as Priscilla emerges from her teens, and her perspective gradually shifts. She does not have a sudden awakening, and her progress does not yield a fully formed sense of self—only an understanding of the possibility that she can exist apart from her husband. Scenes in the film’s second half echo earlier ones: When she finds evidence of an affair, she voices her frustration, rather than silently fretting over his loyalty. When he proselytizes to her about spiritualism, she doesn’t listen as intently as she used to. Priscilla avoids the more dramatic lore about the couple that Priscilla, an executive producer on the film, included in her memoir, such as her own affairs. Instead, the movie produces a hypnotic effect with its contrasting sequences and misty montages. By the time it reaches the late ’60s, you feel much like Priscilla herself, wondering where the years went.
In its last stretch, Priscilla falters somewhat as it rushes toward Priscilla making her choice to leave Elvis. But Coppola’s textured direction and Spaeny’s measured performance lend the conclusion a poignant weight that anchors the rapid developments. In a conventional biopic, Priscilla’s exit would probably feel triumphant; here, it’s somewhat troubling, even cold, arriving at a point when it seems unnatural for a film to end. Yet that feels truthful for a woman approaching a future in which she must try to relinquish her teenage fantasy. Elvis and Priscilla’s love story is something of a tragedy, the film seems to suggest. Being Elvis’s muse was a dream—and a long shadow that Priscilla would have to reckon with for the rest of her life.