When walking into the theater Sunday evening, I anticipated a biopic of Sofia Coppola fashion; aesthetically pleasing cinematography, a gorgeous soundtrack, and a stunning leading lady. I left with just that, coupled with a handful more. I exited with the knowledge that Coppola had masterfully crafted a horror movie; the horror at hand being a powerful man, an impressionable child, and a narrative depicting grooming.
I vividly remember when I first fell in love with Priscilla Presley. In eighth grade, I bore witness to a side-by-side of her and my idol Lana Del Rey donning identical embellishments in their bumped hair. Rapidly, I began to consume all Priscilla-oriented media, falling down the rabbit hole and kick-starting my years-long love affair with the 60s (and a myriad of makeup failures).
Additionally, I recall when I first entered the words “How old was Priscilla when she met Elvis” into Google— immediately astonished at the result of my discovery. When Priscilla was announced, I anxiously awaited how it would address the gaping ten-year difference between the pair. It does so with subtle nuance— often conveyed through what is left unspoken rather than spoken.
In one of their first exchanges, Elvis guides Priscilla to the darkness of his bedroom and proceeds to practically trauma dump about the death of his mother. Priscilla’s response is one expected from a 14-year-old; bashful yet empathetic. Awkward. Unsure. She later tells her mother that “he needs me,” conveying her naive outlook on the relationship she doesn’t recognize to be wrong.
Not far after, she is thrust into Elvis’s world, consumed by his demons that weigh down upon her juvenile shoulders as if they were her own. The 6 ft. 5 Jacob Elordi (Elvis) towers over Cailee Spaeny (Priscilla), their drastic height difference explicitly capturing the skewed power dynamics and ten-year gap within their relationship.
Consistently dim lighting creates a claustrophobic environment and viewing experience. Enclosed within the walls of Graceland, with no social circle of her own, Priscilla is isolated from the outside world and any semblance of a normal adolescence. Her impressionable adolescent mind is molded and groomed into Elvis’s ideal woman (despite still being a child)— he dictates the clothes she wears, the style of her hair, makeup, and the colors he deems suit her. He feeds Priscilla with ideas of who she is (who he wants her to be) just as he feeds her the pills he tells her will help her focus in school. When proposing the idea of undertaking a job, Elvis gives her an ultimatum: “It’s me or a career.” This commanding demeanor is consistent when saying: “You gotta let me decide when we have this moment,” in regard to their sex life. Later, he declares: “We’re gonna be married,” with a tone of finality— his controlling and constrictive demeanor concealed beneath manipulative charisma.
At a certain point halfway through the film, I realized I didn’t know a single detail about Priscilla as an individual, only the fragments of herself that had been sculpted by her groomer. I believe this to be intentional. Her identity is synonymous with Elvis, so much so that toward the end of the film, as Priscilla begins to build a life of her own, she seems like a completely foreign character.
The formative years of her adolescence she spent being a rockstar’s personal Barbie doll— resulting in an inability to fully and independently form an identity of her own. In the end, as she breaks from the shackles of their relationship, Priscilla voices: “You’re losing me to a life of my own.”
As Raquel Alvarado puts in her essay on the film:
“It isn’t until she’s able to understand herself as a woman capable of desire outside of his gaze that she emerges from his gilded cage. It’s telling, then, that when she finally leaves, she’s wearing pants.”As Priscilla drives away from Graceland, the screen fading to black, it begs the question: where is the movie about her life after Elvis? In critiquing the way her personality revolved around Elvis’s ideal version of her, the film unintentionally (or intentionally) reinforced it. The scenes where she is coming into her identity are scarce, and by the end, we are left with nothing if not more questions. We still don’t know who she is—not really. The film itself lives in the shadow of Elvis, much like Priscilla did in the years she spent with him.