Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Marriage to Elvis was no bed of roses

    Sofia Coppola's Priscilla tells the story of a 14-year-old girl swept up in Elvis Presley's fame. The message is clear: Narcissistic mega-stars wield power that can lead them to control those who fall under their sway.
   Priscilla Presley's relationship with Elvis deprived her of much of her adolescence. Priscilla became a prisoner in a well-appointed castle called Graceland, Presley's Memphis mansion. She spent her time waiting for Elvis to return home and waiting for Elvis to decide that she was old enough for sex.  Like a decorative houseplant that was destined to become potbound, Priscilla increasingly felt constrained.
   Presley met Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) in 1959 while serving in the Army in Germany. Priscilla's stepfather (Ari Cohen), an Air Force officer, also was stationed in Germany. Priscilla's mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) warned her daughter that she was leaping into troubled waters but Priscilla was too much under Elvis's spell to listen.
  Watching Priscilla, it's easy to forget how big Elvis's stardom was: Coppola treats it as an stablished fact. Her behind the scenes look,  presents a multi-faceted, if inconclusive, portrait of Elvis.
  It's not entirely clear whether Elvis -- played by Jacob Elordi -- was an abusive husband, a Peter Pan-ish figure suspended in boyhood or a pill-popping star who knew how to use his country-boy charm when needed. Perhaps  Elvis was all of those things, a kaleidoscopic figure who looms over Priscilla's young life. 
      Spaney, now 26, convincingly portrays a naive adolescent, an isolated young woman, and a woman who, after 13 years, realizes that staying with Elvis, whom she loved, would keep her in a state of suspended animation. She'd always be the 14-year-old innocent Elvis wanted in his life after the death of his mother.
     With the help of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and production designer Tamara Deverell, Coppola steeps the movie in airless isolation in which Priscilla feels the loneliness induced by Elvis's manipulation, cruelty, and possessive love.
    While Elvis made movies in Hollywood or toured, Priscilla lived a guarded existence at home. She attended a Catholic girls' school but was forbidden to invite any of her classmates home. And when Elvis arrived, he typically surrounded himself with his "boys," an ever-present gaggle of comrades that made little room for Priscilla.
      This oppressive atmosphere supports the film thematically but also threatens to choke it as the story proceeds from episode to episode. In Priscilla, style becomes both a virtue and a trap that generates a bit of boredom, at least it did for me.
         Something else: Elvis was six feet tall. Priscilla Presley is 5'4."
         At 6 feet 5 inches, Elordi towers over the 5'1" Spaeny. The height difference serves to reinforce Elvis's dominance but also becomes a distraction. Twenty-four when he met the 14-year-old Priscilla, Elvis looks like a giant with a Lilliputian girlfriend.
         Elordi's Elvis mixes charm, tantrums, and self-absorption. He adopts an approach to dialogue that might be called the "Memphis mumble," a half-whispered lilt Elvis may have employed in the womanizing that's referenced throughout.
          The movie stops short of showing Priscilla' s post-Elvis life, which included her becoming president of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which, among other things, turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. Maybe that would have complicated the narrative arc in which Priscilla, now 78, saves herself from Elvis in order to be herself. 
        Based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, the movie pretty much sticks to what Priscilla could observe both in terms of scene-by-scene development and overall perspective. Priscilla Presley served as the film's executive producer. 
       Coppola remains a gifted director who's not afraid to give her movies (Virgin Spring, Marie Antoinette, and The Bling Ring) distinctive flavor. This time, watching the inevitable unfold can dull the story's edges, leaving Spaeny's nicely realized performance to fill any empty spaces. 
        I know folks hate mixed reactions to movies. In or out, some readers demand.
       Sorry, but that's not me. Priscilla lingered with me, even though at times, it seemed as if it was drifting toward a foregone conclusion with too little happening along the way.

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