Saturday, October 28, 2023

Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, Marie Antoinette, and the Act of Spinning Art from Autobiography

(Sofia Coppola, 2023, USA, 113 minutes) 

Sofia Coppola’s best films tend to have some degree of autobiography to them. This is as true of the overtly autobiographical films–Somewhere, an account of a preteen girl (Elle Fanning) and her famously prickly father (Stephen Dorff), and the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, an account of an unhappily married woman (Scarlett Johansson) marooned in Tokyo–as the literary adaptations. 

Priscilla, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir (with Sandra Harmon), Elvis and Me, marks Coppola's fourth adapted screenplay to date after big-screen versions of Jeffrey Eugenides's 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, Antonia Fraser's 2002 biography Marie Antoinette, and Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel The Beguiled, which previously inspired the superior 1971 Don Siegel film with Clint Eastwood. Priscilla is also one of Coppola's more covertly, but distinctly autobiographical films. 

How does that work when Sofia was never married to an icon like Elvis? Well, the parallels are there, even if the exact circumstances differ, since she's married to a musician, Thomas Mars (née Croquet) of the French band Phoenix, who has composed the score for four of her feature films. 

Mars is also a native of Versailles where Coppola filmed Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst from The Virgin Suicides as The Queen and her cousin, Jason Schwartzman, as the King. This isn't to suggest that Mars has much in common with Elvis in terms of fame, personality, or image, but the life of a full-time musician is a uniquely challenging one–sometimes marked by glitter, sometimes drudgery, and sometimes by long periods of soul-crushing inactivity–a life that both Sofia and Priscilla have more intimate knowledge of than most other women. Than most other people

As with Marie AntoinettePriscilla explores the tension between the public and the private. Priscilla Beaulieu found fame as a 14-year-old when she started dating Elvis while he was stationed in Bremerhaven, West Germany for 17 months–more so when they married seven years later in Las Vegas–while Marie Antoinette found fame as a 14-year-old when she married Louis XVI, and Sofia was, essentially, born to it when she played Michael Corleone's infant nephew in 1972 best picture winner The Godfather

If anything, Sofia inherited a tendency towards autobiography from her formidable father, Francis Ford Coppola, who co-produced Priscilla. Her brother, Roman, also served as second unit director, and another cousin, Nicolas Cage, was once married to Priscilla's daughter, Lisa Marie.

Sofia continued to act throughout the 1980s, but it wasn't until 1990 that her modest fame as Francis's actress daughter turned to infamy when he cast the 18-year-old in The Godfather III, saddling her with a sizeable role--Michael Corleone's daughter--she was ill-equipped to play (as a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder, who would reconvene with the elder Coppola in 1992 for Bram Stoker's Dracula). As Kyle Buchanan put it in a recent New York Times interview with Sofia, "Priscilla's feeling of being scrutinized by an entire country at such a formative age was all too relatable." 

If Sofia, as an actress, was seen as a dilettante, she was learning how to navigate Hollywood, sometimes by way of her father's projects, but more frequently through the films and music videos of friends and acquaintances; it's just that writing and directing would turn out to be her true métier. 

Priscilla, on the other hand, segued from girlfriend to wife to mother once she met Elvis in 1959. 

If she had any ambitions, they went out the window, because that's what he wanted, and initially, it's what she wanted, too, because she loved him--in the obsessive, single-minded way of the teenager that she was--and that's what women did in the 1960s, especially Southern women from good Christian homes. But also because she was a naïve young woman dazzled by his fame, his riches, and his larger-than-life personality. 

As in the candy-colored Marie Antoniette, Coppola luxuriates in the gilded, pseudo-gothic world to which Elvis (played by a very good Jacob Elordi) introduces his teenaged sweetheart (a spectacular Cailee Spaeny). 

Granted, Priscilla wasn't exactly poor, but solidly middle class. After Elvis returns to the States in 1960, he starts acting and recording again, but he was essentially footloose and fancy free. He and Priscilla stay in touch by mail and by phone, but he continues to see other women, just as he did in Germany, when he dated TV performer Anita Wood from 1957 to 1962. 

Coppola depicts all of this from Priscilla's point of view, just as she did in Marie Antoinette (Anita's presence is felt exclusively through the letters Elvis carelessly leaves where Priscilla can find them). The young woman appreciates the attention, which makes her feel special, but she doesn't yet realize the value Elvis places on her malleability, the all-important quality that sets her apart from the more sophisticated co-stars, like Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra, with whom he is linked during their courtship. 

Elvis denies one fling, but confirms the other. More significantly, he informs Priscilla that he would never commit to a woman who didn't put his needs first. As she wrote in her book, "I wasn't interested in a career, in Hollywood, or in anything else that would draw my attention away from him."

By Priscilla's 16th birthday, they still haven’t consummated their relationship–despite her protestations–but she receives her first invitation to Graceland, where she reconnects with Elvis's father, Vernon (Tim Post), his financial advisor, and the rest of his retinue; the family, friends, staffers, and hangers-on, many with whom he was already entwined while he was stationed in Germany. French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who shot Coppola's last two films, makes the Memphis mansion seem impossibly luxurious, right down to the shag carpeting in which Priscilla kneads her freshly-manicured toes as if she were one especially self-satisfied cat. 

If she enjoys living in the lap of luxury with all the fancy gowns and jewels she desires (all beautifully designed by Stacey Battat), she worries they'll never really be alone, and for the most part, her fears will be realized. Elvis also gives her schoolgirl look an overhaul by insisting that she load up on the eyeliner and that she have her newly-bouffant hair dyed black like his. 

Considering that Coppola comes from a close-knit Italian-American clan, she has always excelled at depicting loneliness and isolation. 

This is particularly true of 2011's Somewhere, in which 11-year-old Cleo spends more time in LA and Milan hotel rooms than with her father when she accompanies him on a promotional tour. It's also true of 1999's The Virgin Suicides, in which the sheltered Lisbon sisters are like aliens at their suburban high school, admired for their untouchable blonde beauty, but never completely accepted or understood. 

A relationship with a superstar necessitates protracted periods during which Elvis, who aspired to become a serious actor like his hero, Marlon Brando, expects Priscilla to "keep the home fires burning" while he’s working on lucrative movies he finds increasingly humiliating, but if he has a hold on Priscilla, Colonel Tom Parker, who doesn't appear in the film, has a hold on him. In the book, it's more clear that Elvis's beloved, if troubled mother, who had passed before Priscilla came along, had the biggest hold on her son. He would do anything for Gladys Presley, his first, and possibly greatest, love. 

For all the glamor and excitement, though, Priscilla is still a teenager. As their romance becomes more serious, Elvis arranges for Vernon and his second wife, Dee (Stephanie Moore), to serve as her guardians while she attends a private Catholic school in Memphis. As in the book, Coppola makes it clear that Priscilla, who was spending most nights with Elvis and his friends, wouldn't have graduated if she hadn't cheated on her final algebra exam–and she even uses her proximity to Elvis to make it happen, proving that she isn't quite as sweet and innocent as he would like to believe. 

For the most part, though, she's everything he wants her to be. After all, he molded her to his specifications. The script never mentions grooming, but Priscilla presents what it feels like to a minor completely under the sway of an older, considerably more powerful person. 

Seattle music writer (and friend) Gillian Gaar, who has written five books about Elvis, told me before the press screening that message boards have been lighting up with fury over a film that almost none of these devoted fans are likely to have seen, and if they think they won't be pleased with Coppola's portrayal of Elvis, they're probably right, except she has the facts on her side. Jacob Elordi aptly captures Elvis's charm, his humor, and his seductiveness, but also his childishness, his sarcasm, his duplicity, and his anger, which results in a couple of minor, if disturbing physical altercations. 

Gillian, who wasn't as enthusiastic about the film, also directed me to a festival review that dismissed it as conventional--while praising the actors–but I beg to differ. And I'm not alone. As Paul Schrader posted to Facebook, "Priscilla could also have been called Beguiled. Its pleasures are insidious. It sneaks up inside you, finds a warm place and hovers there." It's ironic, because Schrader is a master when it comes to words, whereas Coppola is a sly filmmaker who speaks more through images–though there's nothing wrong with the dialogue in the film–but she makes well-trod material feel fresh, largely by ceding the spotlight to a vibrant Priscilla (to Spaeny's credit, I never doubted why Elvis found this young woman so irresistible). 

The film could have felt redundant after over a dozen Elvis biopics, and possibly even cheap, after Baz Luhrmann's razzle-dazzle Elvis, made on a budget over four times its size, but I didn't think about it once while watching Priscilla, which has its own uniquely feminine–and ultimately feminist–appeal. 

Granted, Coppola eschews any Elvis music–a fate that befell some versions of her father's 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptation, The Outsiders–but it never comes across as a liability, because her film concerns the private Elvis more than the public one, and so she fills the soundtrack with the kinds of singles he and Priscilla might have spun on the hi-fi. She also throws in a few anachronistic selections, much as she did in Marie Antoinette, like Spectrum's "How You Satisfy Me." Purists may balk, but it worked for me (according to this Billboard piece, Authentic Brands Group withheld the rights to Elvis's catalog). Naturally, Phoenix provided the sympathetic score. 

Eventually, as the situation becomes untenable, Priscilla extricates herself from Elvis's increasingly toxic world. When they met, he was already using pills to sleep and pills to wake up, encouraging her to use them to stay alert during class and to get shut-eye after all-night gallivanting, but she got out while the getting was good, whereas his addictions became unstoppable. 

Sofia tracks the trajectory from neat shirts and slacks to black leather to Evel Knievel-type jumpsuits, but avoids showing the bloated, sweaty mess Elvis had become at the end of Luhrmann’s film–and in real life–but she's more interested in Priscilla, who stopped teasing her hair, applying false eyelashes and heavy makeup, and wearing the outfits he chose from her. 

All of this is over in a matter of minutes. Though Coppola's budget was slashed, and she had to cut 10 pages from her script, the film might not be much different otherwise, since Elvis and Me also speeds through this stuff quickly, with no indication as to what Priscilla's life was like from 1973, when she and Elvis divorced, and 1985, when the book was published. 

Coppola uses ellipses as she moves from one chapter to the next. For instance, she shows Priscilla training with karate instructor Mike Stone, a hobby Elvis encouraged her to pursue, but she doesn't make it clear that Priscilla had an affair with him. In the book, Priscilla admits to two affairs (the other man was a dance instructor). I'm not sure Coppola needed to be explicit, but anyone who hasn't read the book, or doesn't arrive with some knowledge of Priscilla's personal life, might think she remained faithful from start to finish, though she swears she did during their extended courtship.

The film ends with a song that will strike some viewers as perfect and others as obvious--possibly even lazy--except Elvis literally sang it to Priscilla after their divorce. For a filmmaker known for her subtlety, it spells things out emphatically, but I found it moving. After all, a film that involves Elvis can't be too restrained the whole way through; that isn't who he was and it wasn't who Priscilla was--while she was with him--even if Coppola defines the concept.

Then again, for all the autobiographical elements in the film–the fame and/or infamy, the unwanted attention, the judgment, the criticism–Priscilla isn't her story, or even a version of her story, but Priscilla Presley's, the sometimes maligned, misunderstood, and long suffering ex-wife who helped to write the book and to produce the motion picture. 

But it's still a Sofia Coppola film, and I believe it's one of her best.

Priscilla opens in Seattle on Thurs, Nov 2, at the Meridian, Thornton Place, Majestic Bay, and other area theaters. Images: Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla (Sabrina Lantos / Vanity Fair), Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette wearing Fred Leighton jewels (The Adventurine), Spaeney and Jacob Elordi as Priscilla and Elvis (A24/Deadline), Elvis and Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (MGM / Far Out Magazine), the real-life Priscilla (Elvis and Me), The Virgin Suicides (Ronald Grant / The Guardian), and Priscilla (YouTube / Looper).  

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