movie reviews

‘Priscilla’ review: An authentic perspective

Ryan Oquiza

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

‘Priscilla’ review: An authentic perspective

WEDDED. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi in a still from 'Priscilla.' A24 Films

'Sofia Coppola ditches the flashy Elvis musical numbers, opting for the authenticity brought to life by the inspired performances of Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi'

This review contains minor spoilers.

Elvis fans might think that the film Priscilla, depicting the life of the celebrated spouse of the anointed “King of Rock and Roll,” detracts from the authentic spirit of their cherished musical legend. The trailer doesn’t leave much room for doubt – Elvis, as portrayed by Jacob Elordi, mirrors the archetype of a toxic gaslighter that Elordi’s roles have become known for. Priscilla, played with quiet poignancy by Cailee Spaeny, is gentle, serene, and, as far as anyone can tell, ordinary. However, at the young age of 14, her life takes a dramatic turn.

When she grew closer with Elvis, her chance at a normal life dwindled. Her body was no longer her own, as she routinely consumed pills with uncertain purposes. Even her fashion style, her makeup and hair, became objects of scrutiny and transformation at the hands of Elvis and that annoying male friend group every boyfriend has. She was suddenly thrust into the role of parent and domestic confinement.

These subtle, razor-sharp jabs at Priscilla are delivered with an air of matter-of-factness. There is no music cue to signal a bad thing is happening, nor are there any editing tricks or visual pizzazz to accentuate any immediate danger happening to her. Director Sofia Coppola doesn’t feel the need to guide the audience and dictate what’s right or wrong. Through Priscilla’s perspective, we witness a woman entangled in a complicated environment, bound to an even more complicated man. 

Her story’s groundedness presents the sobering truth that real life rarely fits into the neat categories of heroes and villains – a fault that persisted in last year’s Elvis-centered biopic. Elvis never fit the mold of a straightforward hero, and Coppola wasn’t out to make him a typical villain either. He remained a flawed man that Priscilla tried to unravel, only to realize later that she was flying too close to the sun.

Coppola ditches the flashy Elvis musical numbers, opting for the authenticity brought to life by the inspired performances of Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi. It is a reflective view of a woman drowning in alienation. From Lost in Translation to Marie Antoinette, Coppola has always been captivated by this peculiar brand of loneliness that ails her female characters. Everything you’d expect from a Sofia Coppola film, down to the anachronistic soundtrack, lavish set design, and dreamy atmosphere — they’re all here. The difference, in this case, is that the themes Coppola typically delves into (the wistful longings of a young woman) now stand in direct opposition to the legacy of a man who is larger-than-life (who, it should be noted, still has a legion of fans ready to defend him).

It’s a unique challenge for the director, whose sensibilities are usually reserved for fictional characters or reimagined historical figures from centuries past. In this case, she taps into a biography still closely tied to present history. Based on Priscilla’s memoir Elvis and Me, the book runs through the many affairs of Elvis, the prescription pills, her early introduction to the singer at the age of 14, and the tumultuous divorce. But, the brilliant thing the film does is that it establishes an identity onto the subject, no longer viewed solely in connection with or merely a footnote to Elvis’ journey.

Must Read

[Only IN Hollywood] Another Elvis movie? ‘Priscilla’ offers a rare, more intimate take on the King

[Only IN Hollywood] Another Elvis movie? ‘Priscilla’ offers a rare, more intimate take on the King

Coppola takes away all of the extravagant noise and sets more than half of the film inside a bedroom. It could not be any more different from the frantically paced Baz Luhrmann Elvis film. You’d think the bedroom of one of the richest musical artists would feel more grand, but it’s rather small, always framed in tight close-ups and limited coverage. It paints a picture of the space between Elvis and Priscilla as increasingly suffocating, a form of imprisonment that she has not fully acknowledged.

Technicals-wise, this film is a candy-colored marvel. The production design reminds me of a low-budget Marie Antoinette aesthetic, mostly honing in on the limited clothing and sets they were able to acquire. Done only with a $20-million budget, the film often feels like it, only operating in the same locations over and over again. But it does the intended effect. There is a sense of claustrophobia, a revolving door of repeated hallways and rooms. We always experience everything from Priscilla’s viewpoint, so when you feel queasy and a sense of inertia, she likely shares the same sentiments.

Bit by bit, Priscilla attempts to show bursts of her individuality, using fashion mixed with glamor to create iconic looks that have graced magazines and photo shoots. But the film peels back from making empty celebrations of artifice. In a scene where Priscilla is about to give birth to Lisa-Marie, the Graceland mansion wraps into a panic. Then, when she’s all alone amidst the pandemonium, she sits upfront, meticulously putting on her eyeliner with a bizarre calmness. Even during times of bodily change, she still acclimates herself to her external image, to the form that Elvis has sculpted.

The popular thing to assess with regards to the actors is to compare the Elvis portrayals. Austin Butler or Jacob Elordi? I don’t find any value in that comparison other than (literal) face value comparisons. But what I find more interesting is how the two directors, Luhrmann and Coppola, choose to depict the supporting characters in contrast to their protagonists. Olivia DeJonge plays Priscilla in Luhrmann’s film while Elordi plays a relatively stone cold Elvis in Coppola’s version (that is, when paired side by side to the more lively one from last year).

Priscilla recedes into the background for the majority of Elvis, a reasonable outcome of a narrative that delves into the full expanse of Elvis’ evolution. But it seems telling that I don’t even remember her presence ever making an impression on me. She just comes and goes, the script unable to afford her any semblance of depth and reverence. And it’s not like it’s impossible to imbue strength to female characters in male-centric films. Oppenheimer sees Emily Blunt steal a lot of scenes opposite Cillian Murphy, particularly in the latter half. 

But what’s more is that there is strength in Elordi’s Elvis when there was none for DeJonge’s Priscilla. In the scene where Priscilla leaves Elvis in last year’s film, it is a comically clichéd moment where DeJonge repeatedly motions to her chest and repeats the line “I am your wife.” None of that cheesiness can be found in Priscilla, and a huge part of that is due to the greatness of Cailee Spaeny. Her transformation is indelible, never truly leaving you even when the film ends. And in the similar moment when she leaves Elvis in this one, it’s not adorned with platitudes and fireworks; instead, it’s a moment of discernment and unvarnished truth. A moment of authenticity in a film that’s overflowing with it. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Head, Person


Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.