You may not think there’s a need for two big Elvis Presley movies in back-to-back years, but it’s hard to imagine a pair of filmmakers with sensibilities as different as Baz Luhrmann, who directed “Elvis” (2022), and Sofia Coppola, who came to the Venice Film Festival on Monday to debut “Priscilla,” about the rocky marriage between Priscilla Presley and her famous beau.
Luhrmann is a maximalist, a master of shock-and-awe spectacle in which every new frame is a confetti-crammed party. Coppola is more interested in the intimate: Her settings may be as luxurious as Luhrmann’s, but the young women she finds living in these gilded cages are a party of one, desperate for real connection.
That’s a feeling Coppola has explored in movies like “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006), and “Priscilla” finds the filmmaker at the peak of her preoccupations. “I don’t know why I keep coming back to it,” Coppola joked at a news conference on Monday after she was asked about her frequent depictions of girlhood. “Hopefully, I’ll grow up soon.”
Adapted from the memoir “Elvis and Me,” Coppola’s film gets underway when Elvis, sent to Germany during his military service, meets Priscilla, the daughter of a military officer newly stationed there. She’s isolated and homesick, yearning for the life she left behind in the United States. Despite being a superstar, a besotted Elvis finds he can relate.
Priscilla is also 14, a fact the film doesn’t shy away from. “Ninth grade? You’re just a baby,” the 24-year-old Elvis murmurs when they meet at a party, though that age difference hardly slows his pursuit: At times, he even seems to regard Priscilla’s virginity as her primary trait. “Promise me you’ll stay the way you are,” he says as he proceeds to turn the poor girl’s life upside down, eventually whisking her from Germany to Graceland, plying her with uppers and sleeping pills, and insisting that she keep their yearslong relationship secret even as he’s publicly photographed in romantic clinches with the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Ann-Margret.
As in “Marie Antoinette,” when our young protagonist is dropped in the lap of luxury and finds it awfully lonely, Priscilla has everything she thought she could ever want and still feels a lack. The star she found so alluring is often cruel and manipulative, telling her what to wear and how to act, and reminding her every time she balks that millions of women would eagerly take her place. To assert herself, Priscilla has to get creative: Since Elvis wants her to dress only in solid colors, every time he does something upsetting, she retaliates by wearing a vivid print.
Priscilla is sensitively played in the film by Cailee Spaeny, an up-and-coming actress, while “Euphoria” star Jacob Elordi has the even trickier task of playing Elvis a year after Austin Butler’s uncanny re-creation made him an A-lister. Elordi acquits himself just fine, and it helps that Coppola isn’t interested in staging splashy musical numbers: During the few glimpses we do get of Elordi’s Elvis midsong, he’s always filmed from the back. That aesthetic choice smartly steers “Priscilla” away from Luhrmann’s movie (which was much more interested in Elvis the performer) and further grounds the film in Priscilla’s perspective. If he’s heading onstage, all it really means is that he’s leaving her behind.
The movie may also lack big musical scenes because Presley’s estate was unwilling to support the film or authorize the use of his songbook. I’m not surprised. Luhrmann’s hagiography was estate-approved and portrayed the singer as the innocent pawn of his craven manager, Col. Tom Parker. “Priscilla” shows how manipulative Elvis himself could be. This is no puff piece: It’s a warts-and-all portrayal of a charismatic man who pulled a young girl into his orbit and then wouldn’t let her out.
Though Priscilla attended the Venice news conference in support of the film, she didn’t sit on the dais with Coppola and her cast, instead watching from the front row of the audience. But when a journalist asked what moved her most about “Priscilla,” Presley herself took the mic.
“It’s very difficult to sit and watch a film about you and about your life and about your love,” she said. “Sofia did an amazing job. She did her homework.”
The moment that moved her most was the ending, Presley said. It’s the moment just after their marriage crumbles, when Priscilla finally summons the strength to stand on her own two feet.
“Yes, I left, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love him,” Presley said. “He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle that was so difficult for me, and I think any woman can relate to that.”