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Intimate and piercingly sad, 'Priscilla' is Sofia Coppola's strongest movie in years


This is FRESH AIR. Arriving in theaters a year after the Oscar-nominated biopic "Elvis," the new drama "Priscilla" tells the story of Priscilla Presley and her relationship with Elvis. It's the latest movie written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and it stars Cailee Spaeny, who recently won the best actress award at the Venice International Film Festival for her performance as Priscilla Presley. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: When I first heard that Sofia Coppola would be making a movie about Priscilla Presley, I thought, well, of course. Who better than Coppola, with her empathetic portraits of life inside the celebrity bubble like "Marie Antoinette" and "Somewhere," to turn Graceland into a young woman's gilded cage? Who better than the director of "The Virgin Suicides" and "The Bling Ring" to tease out the inner life of a teenager who seized what she wanted, in this case, a romance with the biggest star on the planet. Remarkably, "Priscilla," adapted from Presley's 1985 memoir "Elvis And Me," didn't just live up to my expectations. It's Coppola's strongest movie in years - intimate, queasily truthful and piercingly sad.

It begins in 1959, not long after 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, played by Cailee Spaeny, has moved with her family from Texas to West Germany, where her dad, an Air Force captain, is stationed. One day, a man approaches Priscilla and asks if she'd like to meet Elvis Presley. Elvis, who's 24, is doing his military service in Germany, and he regularly throws parties where he can meet and spend time with other Americans. Priscilla's parents warily agree to let her attend. At the party, where Priscilla is conspicuously the only minor, she's introduced to Elvis, who's played by Australian hunk Jacob Elordi from "Euphoria." She's charmed by him, of course, and startled that he takes an interest in her.


JACOB ELORDI: (As Elvis) So what are the kids back home listening to these days?

CAILEE SPAENY: (As Priscilla) I don't know - Bobby Darin and Fabian and you.

ELORDI: (As Elvis, laughter) That's good. I thought they might have forgot about me.

SPAENY: (As Priscilla) No (laughter).

ELORDI: (As Elvis) What about you? You got a favorite song? What you going to make me guess?

SPAENY: (As Priscilla) "Heartbreak Hotel."

ELORDI: (As Elvis, laughter) Kids still like it.

CHANG: Elordi's Elvis is entirely different from the flashier biopic version played last year by Austin Butler. This is a quieter, more interior Elvis and also a more insidious one. He tells Priscilla how much he likes her, how much she reminds him of girls back home. Later, he gets her parents' permission to see Priscilla again, disarming their objections with his courtly Southern manners and his claim that his intentions are honorable. They clearly aren't. Even if the relationship remains chaste for now, they won't have sex until they marry years later. Even so, Elvis' manipulation of every aspect of their relationship is always apparent.

Coppola's view of the situation is both complex and clear-eyed. She trusts us to be appalled by the imbalance of age and power between Elvis and Priscilla, but she also lets us feel the swoony disorientation of being swept up in a superstar's orbit. She shows us the cracks in Elvis' Prince Charming veneer right from the start, the way he lavishes Priscilla with attention and then suddenly withholds it. That cycle continues after Elvis returns to the U.S. and invites Priscilla to visit and eventually move in with him at Graceland. If her parents have any objections at this point, we don't see them. They go along with the arrangement provided that Priscilla finishes high school in Memphis.

Working with the cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the production designer Tamara Deverell, Coppola gives us a Graceland that's gorgeous but stifling and often eerily hushed. Elvis is frequently away in Hollywood, tending to his flailing movie career and generating tabloid headlines about his flings with his co-stars. And long before he and Priscilla marry, we see Elvis' ugly side emerge - his habit of popping pills and sharing them with her, his bursts of temper and physical violence, his need to control her by dictating her hairstyle and wardrobe to the point of reshaping her in his image.

Coppola is such a precise filmmaker that she doesn't have to exaggerate any of this for us to feel sickened or to sense Priscilla's deep loneliness. And the director has an ideal collaborator in Cailee Spaeny. She gives Priscilla an intense watchfulness, as if she were observing her own tragedy from the outside. At the same time, Spaeny doesn't play Priscilla as a passive victim. We see her strength when she rebukes her husband for his philandering and his addictions. The birth of their daughter, Lisa Marie, offers only a brief respite from their unhappiness.

As she's done in the past, Coppola makes subtly anachronistic use of music. Here, that includes covers of classic rock songs by the French band Phoenix, fronted by her husband Thomas Mars. Notably, there are no Elvis songs, reportedly due to rights issues. Setback or not, it feels like the right decision in what is clearly Priscilla's story. That story is only partly told here. We don't see Priscilla's post-marital years, her friendship with Elvis until his death or her own acting career. I'd happily watch a "Priscilla" sequel devoted to the "Naked Gun" years alone. Instead, Coppola brings this doomed love story to its most poignant possible conclusion. You leave this movie feeling sad and slightly dazed, perhaps like Priscilla herself as the last of her illusions finally disappears.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Priscilla."


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, award-winning filmmaker Sofia Coppola tells us about her new film, "Priscilla." It looks at the love affair and age difference between Elvis and Priscilla Presley from Priscilla's point of view. We'll also hear about Sofia's 30-year career and behind-the-scenes stories about some of her iconic films. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "LOVE ME TENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.