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‘Priscilla’: Life in a gilded cage

| Friday, November 10, 2023

Maria Tobias | The Observer

Throughout Sofia Coppola’s filmography, she has been fascinated with lonely women and how wealth, loss of innocence or Hollywood can isolate and diminish them. Thus, “Priscilla” is the ultimate Sofia Coppola film, synthesizing these previously-explored themes. The film is the meditative, haunting journey of a teenage girl who was groomed into a superficial husk of a woman and forced to live a performative, unfulfilling life at the hands of stardom, bolstered by wonderful performances and deft direction.

“Priscilla” does not shy away from Elvis and Priscilla’s incredibly disturbing relationship. The film chronicles their relationship from the very start, when the 14-year-old Priscilla, a mere ninth grader, meets the 24-year-old Elvis while he is stationed at a military base in Germany. The circumstances of their initial meeting are also unsettling, as she is eating alone in a diner when a friend of Elvis ominously approaches her and invites her to a party at Elvis’ house, almost like Elvis sent him to find young American women for him to court. At the party, Elvis and his star power unsurprisingly enchant Priscilla, for she is just one of the millions of young American girls who love Elvis. However, it is Elvis’ attraction to her that is shocking and appalling. Here is one of the most famous and lusted-after men in the world who could feasibly have any woman he wants, yet he is enamored by a mousy 14-year-old girl. Why?

As the film subtly demonstrates, Elvis chooses Priscilla because her innocence and malleability attract him. He wants a naive woman he can easily control, who doesn’t challenge him and who is a refuge from the entertainment world he despises. Priscilla represents a pure, untainted femininity that is highly appealing to Elvis. In the film’s twisted “meet cute” scene, Elvis says to Priscilla, “Ninth grade? Why, you’re just a baby!” and then proceeds to kiss her. It’s all very disconcerting, but the film still treats their connection as genuine and, at times, wholesome.

In this regard, I think this film wonderfully compliments 2022’s “Elvis,” as they both deal with the theme of toxic, exploitative relationships. In “Elvis,” we see Elvis as the victim of an exploitative relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker, who manipulates and abuses Elvis for monetary gain. But in “Priscilla,” we see Elvis as the perpetrator of an exploitative relationship with Priscilla. The two films together display a cycle of abuse, where Elvis, to reassert a sense of control in a life increasingly dictated by Parker, enters a romantic relationship with the young Priscilla, where he can be the one who finally dominates and controls another person.

Eventually, we see Priscilla leave Germany and move in with Elvis at Graceland. (She is still a high schooler, mind you!) Coppola spends considerable time quietly depicting Priscilla’s ennui at Graceland, with the camera following her around the empty, opulent interiors of the estate. Through visuals alone, the film strikingly illustrates how this teenager has been extracted from her family and entrapped into this glamorous but isolating world where her sole purpose is to be Elvis’ lover and, even when he’s gone, she’s perpetually appealing to his gaze.

Priscilla’s autonomy and self are slowly stripped away from her by Elvis. He takes her shopping, but every dress Priscilla wants to buy has to be personally approved by Elvis. Furthermore, he forcibly persuades her to dye her hair black. While these seem like relatively innocuous things, they exemplify a significant power imbalance where Priscilla can’t push back or assert her wants or needs in this relationship because she is just some lucky girl and he’s THE Elvis Presley. What say does she have, right? It’s this constant fear of abandonment and losing this fantasy world that motivates many of Priscilla’s actions. His affairs, his verbal abuse and the lack of fulfillment in her life are all ignored and forgiven. She’s trapped with no easy escape; her entire life is Elvis because she had no chance to live her own. The film is a slow but riveting descent into this sad, inevitable conclusion, and Priscilla has no closure or moment of emotional catharsis. She does leave Elvis by the end, but it’s not treated as a triumphant victory but a belated, crushing decision.

The film’s two fantastic lead performances are what make the film’s central relationship so tragic and fascinating. Jacob Elordi is excellent as Elvis and gives a simultaneously charismatic, sympathetic and scary performance. Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla is wonderful, effectively playing the varied stages of Priscilla’s life, from the naive 14-year-old fangirl to the disillusioned housewife. The film explicitly reveals very little about Priscilla’s inner thoughts and feelings, but Spaeny skilfully manages to display them through her subtle, precise performance. Furthermore, the costumes and set design are sumptuous. Priscilla’s impeccable, glamorous aesthetic hauntingly contrasts with its insidious function: a straightjacket she has to don eternally. The cinematography is also gorgeous, with carefully crafted shots and vibrant color grading.

“Priscilla” is an understated yet engrossing examination of love as a means of objectification and exploitation. The film’s delicate direction and captivating performances effectively depict the complex relationship between Elvis and Priscilla in a way that humanizes them beyond their mythological status in pop culture. 

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