It seems we are entrenched in the era of the biopic. For self-aggrandizing white male actors and directors, mythologizing and historically revising cultural figures while glossing over their problematic traits is the new apex of cinema. There is also the narcissistic tendency of male filmmakers and actors to go completely over the top in their techniques under the guise of “method” or “innovation” to prove their commitment to the craft. The result of this excess is usually fulfilling theatrically, but not as a means of representing a lived experience. Unsurprisingly, it took a woman – Sofia Coppola, that is – to prove that the key to a meaningful representation of someone’s life is simplicity and intimacy.
Priscilla, Coppola’s latest film, follows the early life of Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny), pop culture icon and wife of Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). In Priscilla, Coppola does away with the masculine biopic trend of grandeur for its own sake. Instead, she focuses on the inner workings of Priscilla’s life, through which her story comes into being. Coppola’s visually breathtaking sets and incredible costume design perfectly emulate the glamour of the 50s and 60s, pulling us into Priscilla’s world. But it is the intimacy we are granted and delicacy with which Coppola treats her story that make us want to stay.
Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, the film follows her life from 1959, when she first met the musician, to 1973, when she divorced him. Although it follows the timeline of their relationship, the film could never be mistaken for one solely about Elvis; the personal transformations Priscilla undergoes during their relationship are clearly its focal point. Coppola takes great care in showing the moments in their relationship when they were apart for extended periods, proving that Priscilla’s personal development is the true focus. Never during these episodes do we see Elvis – we only hear his voice on the phone. Because of his absence, the spotlight is on Priscilla, and we are privy to her subjective account of these separations. A subtle yet effective detail, the film could have been completely different had they ceded this screen time to Elvis.
Following Sofia Coppola’s show-don’t-tell approach to direction, the scenes where we do witness Priscilla in her intimate moments are when we truly see her character develop. Dialogue is minimal, and the inner workings of her character are revealed through mise-en-scène details. For instance, during Elvis’ return to the military, we see Priscilla revelling in the cozy, pastel warmth of her teenage bedroom, writing in her diary. As the relationship evolves, her private life does too. When they are living in their Memphis home Graceland, monumental and imposing architecture provides the backdrop for Priscilla’s daily activities, replacing the earlier feeling of youthful yearning with one of isolation. With the help of Cailee Spaeny’s captivating performance as Priscilla, intimate cinematic techniques prove to be the catalyst of the film’s emotional impact.
Coppola worked closely with Priscilla Presley, even having her act as an executive producer, to ensure that the artistic rendering of her story was done justice. As such, her story and relationship were treated with great nuance. Priscilla and Elvis met when she was 14 and he was 24, creating an immediate power dynamic in a relationship that was clearly one between an adult and a child. A lesser director would turn what was a real woman’s account of her own relationship into some teachable moment or grooming awareness campaign. But for Priscilla herself, the story was more complex than this. For a long time, she believed the love between them was incredibly real, and describes moments of tenderness that would make this seem so. It is only as her idea of love broadens and Elvis reveals himself as a wielder of power that she begins questioning their life together.
When it becomes clear to the audience and Priscilla that the power Elvis wields over her is becoming abusive, and he starts shedding his kind, loving facade, Coppola once again approaches this development with great courtesy. Scenes of abuse or strife are never exploitative or excessively violent, as is often the case in films directed by men, and are dispersed sparingly. For Coppola, depicting domestic violence doesn’t necessitates explicit imagery, as raw, emotive performances from Spaeny and Elordi have a far greater impact.
Despite the deeply personal tone of the story, the experiences Priscilla undergoes resonate universally among women. There is always a deep and internalized want to be desired and desire to be loved, overwhelming and blinding. Especially when you are young, you are never taught to distinguish attention and power from love. It is a long and difficult process realizing that you do not have to compromise yourself to be loved, and to see that if this is being asked of you, it is not really love. This is what makes Priscilla’s conclusion so satisfying. When Elvis asks if she is leaving him for another man, she replies with the heart-piercing line, “I’m leaving you for a life that’s my own.” This not only shows how self-assured and mature Priscilla has become, but ends the film on a tone of hope. Priscilla’s life does not end with her divorce – it begins.
The final scene of the film is the cherry on top of Priscilla’s freedom. In a moment that is serene and bittersweet, she drives away from Graceland after being seen off by the women of the house who supported her all that time. The most immaculate detail of the scene, though, is that it is accompanied by Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” – a song Parton famously refused to sell to Elvis. And what a perfect choice it was to end the film with the two women who most famously said no to the King – Dolly and Priscilla.
A film like this, so respectful of its subject, so personal yet such a ubiquitous female experience, so intimately executed, was desperately needed right now. Between Elvis and Oppenheimer in the last two years, I personally could not endure another passion project asking me to sympathize with a mythologized version of a white man and ignore his horrible actions. Thankfully, a Madonna biopic is in the works, but the fact that Priscilla was able to garner the attention and critical acclaim it did gives promise to a more sensitive evolution of the biopic that will see more iconic women rendered on the big screen. A love letter to Priscilla at its core, this is how I want to enter the era of the intimate, woman’s biopic.