BFI London Film Festival: Priscilla Review

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Priscilla (2023) © A24

When one attempts to picture a quintessential image to represent Sofia Coppola’s filmography, multiple options spring to mind. There’s Scarlett Johansson gazing out the window of a Tokyo cab, her face afloat in a sea of reflected neon lights. Or Kirsten Dunst awakening alone in an empty football field, beginning a groggy trek home in her prom dress.                   

★★☆☆☆

Less grand, but equally as indelible in its ennui and emptiness, there’s Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in a cavernous hotel suite, tucking into late night room service in total silence, save for the faint hum of the TV. It’s an image Coppola returns to frequently in her latest, Priscilla, an adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir of her marriage to the King of Rock’n’Roll.  As in the aforementioned film (2010’s Somewhere), the night owls in question are a star long numbed to the isolation of fame, and the young girl bearing largely silent witness to his lonely world. And, once again, the sight of the two in defeated, TV-dinner retreat comes to embody their relationship in miniature. In this seemingly most intimate of bonds, in these most lavish surroundings, the two have almost nothing to say to each other.

There are differences, of course. In Somewhere, Dorff and Fanning were a father-daughter duo straining to connect. In the new film, 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu has been spirited away from her humdrum teenage life by the most famous man in the world, taken to live with the hip-shimmying prince in his palace. Each step of the way, she follows little more than the grand romantic promises he coos into her ear, her parents bafflingly accepting of the situation. In the moment, it’s a fairy-tale to a lonely kid of Priscilla’s age. With the benefit of adult hindsight, it’s inescapably creepy; even twisted. In another departure from Coppola’s previous work, the nights and days of bed-ridden, TV-glazed paralysis that define much of the relationship in question hardly pass in silence at all. The King has many a trouble to unburden in venting fury, namely the blight of bad scripts, bad songs and bad drugs. Priscilla, for her part, says very little. Like a decorative poodle, she is left alone for months at a time, expectantly waiting for her master’s return. When he appears, it falls to her to soothe and absorb his copious woe and, ultimately, to reflect his greatness back to him. Refusal to do so is not taken kindly. Few directors have so keen a sensitivity to the hollowed-out remove of the idle rich as Coppola, and Priscilla captures in stark, day-to-day detail the experience of being all but purchased wholesale, then left on the mantelpiece. The downside is that, as a film, Priscilla is no less dreary an experience.

Priscilla (2023) © A24

As we watch Priscilla move through her new world, its dollhouse interiors are washed of all enticement by the drained, omnipresent grey of director of photography Philippe Le Sourd’s imagery. Indeed, so quickly are we and Priscilla disabused of the expectation of glamour, adventure and romance in this new life that the film leaves itself little to do for the remainder of its runtime, save for belabouring the point. At various intervals, Priscilla’s keeper takes her out with his boorish, hard-drinking entourage. He gives her a gun to shoot, largely for the amusement of him and the boys. In the film’s brief, soaring highlight, he throws a fireworks display for her. As they kiss, their silhouettes framed against the fizzling lights while Phoenix’s score thrums underneath, the fantasy seems to come alive for a moment. Then it’s back to bed for food and TV. It is, I imagine, entirely the point that through all of this, we scarcely come to know Priscilla at all. Of course, there’s little she knows herself, plucked out of childhood to share in the seclusion of a man who has no interest in learning who she might be. In playing her, Cailee Spaeny has a more difficult task than it might initially appear, holding the fort opposite a more demonstrative scene partner—much as Priscilla herself must hold steady for fear of being washed away by the larger-than-life figure at her side. It’s a credit to Spaeny’s sensitive portrayal that we don’t lose sight of her entirely.

Priscilla (2023) © A24

Still, Priscilla’s blank passivity—as much a survival mechanism as anything else—often makes it all too easy for her own inward journey to be dwarfed by the man reflected in her eyes. For his part, Jacob Elordi makes for a persuasive Elvis, approaching him as a brooding, insecure Narcissus whose soft murmur of a voice never wholly disguises an ever-present aura of threat. Still, the King comes to be an oppressive, exhausting presence, just as cumbersome in his absences as in his arrivals. We understand that Priscilla can only begin to approach true selfhood by being free of him, and as she makes her first moves towards independence, we sense the wheels of the real story beginning to turn. Of course, we don’t get to see it. Come this point, the film is over.

Words by Thomas Messner

Priscilla will be released in cinemas 1 January 2024, with preview screenings from 26 December


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