At first glance, the combination of Priscilla Presley and Sofia Coppola looks like pop-culture catnip: Priscilla, who met pop idol Elvis Presley when she was just 14 and took up residence at Graceland a few years later, being portrayed by a filmmaker known for drenching viewers in gauzy, retro-tastic mood movies? Bring it on.
On one level, “Priscilla” doesn’t disappoint: The film opens with a quintessentially Coppola-esque close-up, of perfectly pedicured bare feet walking through pink shag carpet. While dreamlike music plays, we see the cardinal elements of Priscilla’s iconic look coming together: the batwing eyeliner, the fake lashes, the Aqua Net. If we can count on Coppola for anything, it’s to get the look right – in this case, mid-century America at its most big-haired and ultramod.
But after that enticing opening sequence, “Priscilla” reverts to dreary biopic form, in which the high and low points of Priscilla’s life with the King are recounted with rote, episodic familiarity. The narrative begins in 1959, when Priscilla, portrayed by Cailee Spaeny, is a junior high school student living with her parents on a U.S. Air Force base in Wiesbaden, Germany. A chance encounter results in the young teen being invited to a party at Elvis’ house in Bad Nauheim, where he’s been living during his military service. When Elvis (Jacob Elordi) meets the shy, pretty girl, he’s smitten, drawing her out by asking what music she likes. She mentions Bobby Darin and Fabian before getting around to him.
The broad outline of what happens next is pretty well-known to anyone who read “Elvis and Me,” the book “Priscilla” is taken from. After Elvis leaves Germany, Priscilla isn’t sure she’ll hear from him again, but he winds up inviting her to Memphis, Tennessee, to the alarm but eventual grudging consent of her parents. When she moves in permanently, she completes her education at a local Catholic high school, while Elvis, 10 years her senior, waits patiently back at the mansion. It’s a bizarre tableau, made only slightly more normalized by Elvis’ grandmother Dodger (Lynne Griffin) and Elvis’ entourage, known as the Memphis Mafia, taking Priscilla under their wing with quiet protectiveness.
As strange as Priscilla’s life is, Coppola doesn’t judge, simply observing her beautiful, impassive protagonist as she drifts from one situation to the next. But the scenarios never acquire the momentum needed to make “Priscilla” more than a pretty face. Spaeny bears an uncanny resemblance to her character, morphing from a typical American kid to a black-haired, bouffanted fashion plate, and Elordi does an admirable job of banishing Austin Butler’s astonishing portrayal in “Elvis” to deliver a subtly convincing turn as an uncannily charismatic figure who’s just a Southern boy at heart. But Coppola never asks more of her actors than to hit their marks in what begin to feel like dull, predetermined set pieces, whether it’s a courtship (consisting of uppers, downers, bumper cars and shooting lessons), their hyperpublicized wedding or their marriage’s inevitable deterioration after five years.
As meticulously as Coppola re-creates the gilded look and surreal vibe of Graceland, as well as Elvis’ life in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, “Priscilla” doesn’t possess the heightened aestheticism of her previous biopic “Marie Antoinette.” (As in that film, she includes some nonperiod musical touches to keep things from getting too precious.) The early sequences in Germany are so underlit, they look like they were filmed inside an algae-covered fishbowl. But the film’s biggest problem is the perennial blank slate at its nominal center, who is recessive to the point of being inert; demure to the point of complete disengagement. Coppola seems to have intended “Priscilla” to be a portrait of life with Elvis from the inside, but we never get a glimpse of the title character’s inner life. Instead, she looks dazed and vacant for much of the time, her dialogue limited to meek “hellos” and “thank yous.” We don’t even get a sense of her attraction to Elvis, who the film suggests was far less passionate and more bookish than his fans assumed. Their love life is presented in coy montages – one of a housekeeper leaving trays outside their bedroom door for days on end, another of them taking playfully risqué Polaroids of each other.
Even if it all went down that way, “Priscilla” plays it safe, leaving viewers feeling bemused, and a little bored. By the time Priscilla breaks free of Elvis’ control – not to mention his mounting drug abuse and cheating – Coppola wants us to cheer a woman finally coming into her own. But we still don’t know entirely who that woman is, or what inner drive has animated her to this point. Priscilla remains little more than a screen for other people’s projections – Elvis’, Coppola’s, our own. For all its feminist pretense as a parable of empowerment, “Priscilla’s” still caught in a trap, even when the heroine can – and does – walk out.