The Woman in the Window
by A. G. Sims

Dir. Sofia Coppola, U.S., A24

In 1983, William Eggleston, a photographer with deep ties to Memphis, was invited by the Elvis Presley estate to document the white-columned mansion the American icon once shared with his friends and family, including his very young wife, Priscilla, in Graceland, Memphis. In the latest offering from director Sofia Coppola, Priscilla, the eleven pictures that resulted are an acknowledged reference point for Graceland’s appearance, but there’s a meaningful absence in the photos that also seems to be there in the film—Elvis. The original images, with their saturated colors and artful compositions of domesticity from another time and place, convey an overwhelming hollowness, inviting our minds to conjure what life might have existed—or been stifled—within its tomblike walls. They’ve been compared to the classic Depression-era images of Walker Evans, who famously took his camera to the Deep South, along with the writer, poet, and film critic James Agee, in an attempt to shed light on the lives of white tenant farmers. Ironically, a son of Mississippi before he ever became Memphis’s favorite son, Elvis came from a class background that is a lot closer to that of Evans’s subjects than his future as American royalty would suggest. Their own kind of elegy, lacking the corporeal presence of the home’s owner, Eggleston’s photos couldn’t possibly contain the whole truth of someone’s existence, though they hint at secrets we could never know.

Coppola breathes life into a similarly ghostly Graceland, taking us inside its walls through the eyes of Priscilla, who first entered Elvis’s orbit when she was just 15 years old. Based on her 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, Coppola’s biopic tells the story of her subject’s journey with the “King of Rock and Roll,” from meeting him as a teen in Germany, to marrying, being disappointed by, and eventually leaving him to chart out a path all her own. In this version of the story, Priscilla’s Graceland, like Eggleston’s photographs, is often absent the King, leaving her alone inside the castle’s isolation, to contend with existence in the shadow of a colossus. Priscilla embodies all of Coppola’s cinematic fascinations and traffics in the same themes she’s turned to over and over in her filmography—fame’s hollowed-out core and female ennui, among them—to a serviceable end. In many ways it’s a necessary and bubble-bursting reappraisal of The Elvis Story.

The occasional shots of perfume sprinkled throughout the movie call to mind Coppola’s commercials for Dior, Cartier, and Chanel, luxury behemoths with which she’s been happy to associate her brand over the years. In his newsletter last month, film critic Scott Tobias noted that 2023 has been a year of American brands at the movies, from Barbie to Air to Gran Turismo. It’s hard not to consider Priscilla as another movie outing that will benefit from its proximity to an already well-established brand. That in the past 20 years, Coppola has become synonymous with a kind of luxe white femininity and sanitized rebellion is meant more of an observation than a dig, an acknowledgment that her contributions to the American zeitgeist extend well beyond her films. In the lead-up to this movie’s release, Coppola has engaged in her own kind of brand takeover, tying it with the launch of a career-spanning archival book that’s been feted with Chanel-hosted dinners and other celeb gatherings. Devoted young stans styled in what could only be described as Sofia Coppola-core queued up outside Bookmarc in New York to hopefully get a glimpse of their queen. She is emblematic of a deeply American marriage—of art and the commercial—which also makes her well positioned to critique it from within. In that way, there’s probably no better director to take on Priscilla Presley’s lonely chapter in American history.

The movie opens with a shot of a girl’s bare feet walking across a lush pink carpet before she puts on makeup in her bedroom mirror. It all started in 1959, on an American Air Force Base in Germany, where a high-school-aged Priscilla (played by Cailee Spaeny) was stationed with her parents, as was the most famous man in America, then 24-year-old musician Elvis Presley. One day, Priscilla gets invited to a party at Elvis’s off-base house, which he shares with his dad, Vernon, after being “discovered” at a diner by two adult friends of his, who for some reason push her parents to let them escort her. In the first conversation with her idol, she tells him she’s in the ninth grade, to which Elvis excitedly replies, “Well, you’re just a baby.” He continues to summon her to his parties, where they have frequent private conversations. They both long for home, the foundation for their imbalanced connection, where Elvis already held a Christlike significance in the hearts and minds of the country. Her parents reluctantly hand over guardianship of their teen to Elvis, which illustrates the grip he held not just on the imaginations of young women but also of an entire nation. The implication is clear: letting the underage Priscilla start a relationship with the much older superstar was hardly ever her choice. It was practically un-American not to let Elvis have your daughter.

Jacob Elordi plays Elvis with the understated menace that the Euphoria star has become known for. He shows Priscilla a softer side that very few others get to see and confides in her about the recent death of his mother, which makes Priscilla feel responsible for being a good steward of his vulnerable confessions. She starts to believe that only she understands him and can take care of him and begins pulling away from her parents. Coppola is sympathetic to the real issues that Elvis was grappling with as he navigated meteoric superstardom at a young age. She depicts him as a complex, tragic figure in a gilded cage of his own. But she’s also true to the uncomfortable fact that the world’s biggest celebrity at the time groomed an underaged fan and took almost complete control over her life. Coppola and Elordi have created a take on Elvis that’s distinct and daring in its darkness. When Priscilla visits and then moves in with him in Memphis, she’s so young that she’s enrolled in Catholic school, going from being her parents’ responsibility to Elvis’s pet and a de facto ward of Graceland.

At its best, Priscilla is a delicately rendered coming-of-age story, which for the title character happens quickly in some ways and, in others, isn’t allowed to happen at all. Coppola’s vision of what girlhood would have looked like for Priscilla in the ’50s is rendered in still lifes (pearls, magazines and records with Elvis on the cover, Chanel No. 5); she goes straight from her childhood room to Elvis’s adult bedroom, where she frequently sleeps alone while he’s away. Despite the luxury upgrade, Priscilla is cut off from a key part of a teenage girl’s development of the self—her bedroom. The changing of her room surroundings, from pink to blue, underscores the end of her girlhood. Elvis goes on to tell her that she needs to put away any dreams she has of getting a job. He even wields control over their sex life, rejecting her advances out of a seeming desire to preserve her innocence, which he fetishizes. Later, he tells her what to wear and encourages her to dye her hair black, use more eye makeup. In Coppola’s trademark shot, Priscilla is captured from outside of a window, visually suggesting the psychological weight of what is essentially captivity and how being in her idol’s orbit only further alienated her from the outside world.

That Coppola and producer, friend, and long-time collaborator Youree Henley were willing to make an Elvis movie without being granted permission to use any Elvis music is a testament to the perspective promised by the film’s title. Absent any recognizable Elvis songs, the film conveys the idea that Priscilla existed on an island, far away from the glitz of his shows, music, and overall pop cultural dominance. You don’t really see him onstage, and if you do it’s usually from behind, a distancing effect nodding to Priscilla’s experience of his fame. Costumes, hair, and makeup ground the performances in the different eras of their romance, especially that of Spaeny, who has to show Priscilla going through different stages of development in a short span of time. Elvis and Priscilla were married in a small Vegas ceremony in 1967, when Priscilla was 21, and separated four years later in 1972. Though the movie ends on an uplifting and empowering shot, this life-affirming portrait elides a lot of Priscilla’s journey. While we’ve seen more than enough evidence to justify her escape, when Priscilla finally exits the gates of Graceland, the film hasn’t directly articulated what ultimately catalyzed her to finally leave the King behind.

There’s an obvious thread connecting this movie to the gilded cage of Marie Antoinette, and there’s also a bit of The Virgin Suicides’ Lisbon girls, cursed to live out their youth in the prison of their own home. But for me, Priscilla most evokes the tensions of Somewhere, and the danger that always seemed to be lurking around the corner for its male protagonist’s young daughter, who, by nature of having a movie star father, is forced to grow up in an environment unsuitable for kids. Coppola punctuates that idea with humor in Priscilla, in the way she presents Elvis’s fascination and carelessness with guns, adding a heightened sense of anxiety to the already unsafe world he’s exposed her to. It’s a biopic calibrated to a modern awareness of the way women’s stories have often been mishandled. Priscilla is situated neatly within Coppola’s claustrophobic oeuvre, offering dignity and shades of interiority to a woman’s experience that previously hadn’t been treated as worthy of consideration or empathy.