Priscilla Beaulieu was fourteen years old when she met Elvis Presley, seventeen when she left her parents’ house for Graceland, twenty-one when she and Presley married, twenty-two when they had their first and only child together. Each of these events could be considered Priscilla’s informal passage into adulthood, but if you subscribe to the notion that adulthood requires a certain measure of independence—that a girl only becomes a woman once she finds herself fatherless, husbandless, tasked with creating a life alone—then Priscilla remained a child until she left Presley at the age of twenty-six. Like her former husband, she lived for many years as an overripe adolescent, nestled inside some nurturing if dysfunctional familial structure. She always had a home, though the home was never her own.
“I was touched by his vulnerable, boyish quality,” Priscilla Beaulieu writes in Elvis and Me (1985), the memoir that Sofia Coppola has taken as the basis and inspiration for her new movie, Priscilla. Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) is in ninth grade, an army brat living in Germany, when she meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi) during his soldier years. Though he is technically twenty-four at the time, he has just lost his mother and is regressing fast. He and his adult handlers do not understand one another; a teen idol, he speaks only in the overwrought jargon of his audience: love ballads, homesickness, the visceral hatred of boredom that impels, and purifies, all the young people of America. A serviceman close to Elvis asks Priscilla and then her parents if she can visit with the King. Coppola shows her seated in the backseat of the car, quite composed as she is ferried to a future she wants but seemingly cannot refuse. We are reminded of Kirsten Dunst peering out of her carriage at the beginning of Marie Antoinette. These are the liminal scenes of transport that Coppola chooses for her child-brides, perpetually liminal subjects.
After just a handful of meetings, during which they agree there is nothing to do in Germany, Elvis and Priscilla become an undeniable item. “He needs me,” Priscilla tells her perplexed mother, as if her new role in Elvis’s life were a cosmic mandate. The tempo of the film, which is slow but unceasing, makes this seem true: Elvis has picked Priscilla. She goes to him in the evenings and, as in the diurnal rhythm of a fairytale, is ejected every morning back into the cool light of high school. It is a stunning statement on the nature of their love that the world of teenage stereotypes—French class, textbooks, quizzes—appears more adult, more mature, than Elvis’s inner circle.
In its patient attention to these twin icons of youth, Coppola’s film feels like a document less of romance than of child’s play—a spy’s view on two unsocialized creatures coming together under the protective and rosy encasement of fantasy. Elvis and Priscilla move in together and stay in bed all day, nibbling on breakfast; they go on shopping sprees and shoot guns and ride golf carts. Their love is instinctual and nonverbal, in the way that kids under the spell of make-believe rarely need to communicate to keep the illusion mutual. Parental figures from both families hover nervously around the relationship, as if at the edge of a mythical forest clearing that, as adults, they cannot enter. “You’re just a baby,” Elvis tells her when they are introduced; so is he, if only emotionally. Graceland is soon overtaken by their antics and roughhousing, by a love without any of the painful costs of age.
Like the best of Coppola’s work, Priscilla has a thematic integrity: it is concerned with what the world does to children, how it fails to meet youth’s imagination and sensitivity with worthy stimuli or proper encouragement. One can imagine Coppola explaining her work by citing Gilbert Sorrentino: “I love children because of their incredible gallantry in the face of the assault leveled at them.” In Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), the Lisbon sisters’ lives are harrowed by the stupidity of suburbia and parental control. Their response is to exist “completely out of touch with reality,” and the boys who watch and admire them catch their delusions like a disease. “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl,” says one of the male narrators. “The way it made your mind active and dreamy.” What we fail to realize, until the girls start killing themselves, is that fantasy is not always remedy; its mixture of buoyancy and loneliness can make real life even less tenable when the time comes.
Priscilla manages it. Even from the beginning of the film, one can see she stands a better chance than Elvis, who is jittery and furious, who is never left alone and seemingly doesn’t wish to be. (Coppola shows Priscilla always arriving by herself to Graceland, and Elvis always welcoming her with an entourage.) He refuses to have sex with her until they are married, which to the film’s audience may come as a relief due to the unsettling problem of Priscilla’s age. And yet his celibacy owes less to high-mindedness than anxiety. Priscilla is more important to him as an object of permanence: a Hestia-like fixture who will always be there to, as he enjoins her, “keep the home fires burning.” The continuity with his dead mother is clear, but Elvis’s imperious need for Priscilla’s total availability also represents a deficiency. For desire to exist between two autonomous adults, it must accommodate uncertainty and rejection. Elvis cannot tolerate these contingencies, and because he is a megastar he is one of the few people in the world capable of keeping them from his life—something children, even in all their capacity for pretend, cannot do.
He leaves her at Graceland so he can go shoot movies, and she waits for him while poring over magazine articles about his affairs with his costars. When he returns, he tells her which clothes to wear and demands she dye her hair black. This is both the behavior of a possessive lover and of a child remaking a doll in his image. Coppola shows us Priscilla’s makeover, the dye whizzing down a bathtub drain, in a montage that rings more fun than ominous—a sign that the movie still dwells within the magicked circle of playtime. But Elvis becomes explosive whenever Priscilla resists his edicts, hurling a chair in her direction, throwing her suitcase on the floor and ordering her to fly back to Germany. In these moments, it is unclear whether the lovers are children or adults or, worse, children wielding adult weapons. Still, Priscilla doesn’t allow the fantasy to rupture completely; their surreal life together receives only glancing blows, which allows her to surface gradually, like a scuba diver coming up for air. She graduates high school, learns to drive, becomes a mother—all steps toward the possibility of a life without Elvis.
There are movies about getting together and movies about breaking up. Priscilla tries to be both but often feels too confined to an outsider’s view to revel in the full span of the relationship. All loves compass infinitesimal adjustments and sudden, ineffable changes, and portraying these requires a more novelistic approach than Coppola seems capable of. In her dreamy sketch of the romance, she doesn’t always communicate why these two people gravitated together and then apart. What do they bring to each other? What does each see in the other? We know that Elvis is controlled by those around him, and so he controls Priscilla. We know that Priscilla is a remarkable person, willing and able to confront an experience few human beings will ever have. But the moving alchemy of their match remains mysterious, perhaps because, as in most Coppola films, the protagonists signal their emotions in mute and disorganized ways.
As Priscilla was to the paparazzi, so she is to us: a polished surface, to be scrutinized for clues. Her fluctuations in hairstyle and demeanor indicate tectonic and unspeakable feelings. Her silence makes her seem simple. That so many women under Coppola’s direction appear this way—as somehow both rudimentary and impenetrable—explains why her films polarize. They are narratively slack projects, without the emotional musculature that usually makes attachment and sympathy possible for a viewer.
The promise of a teen idol is that he is available to all, that any regular girl might marry into the kingdom of a heartthrob. In fact only select, special people can handle this insane proximity to glory; Priscilla, despite or maybe because of her age, steps into the fantasy and gracefully endures it for as long as possible, even as its privileged dome begins to crack beneath malice and chaos. Many of the people most damaged by this kind of experience are women, and Priscilla seems like an obvious successor to a recent spate of films—like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021)—that attempt to dig quasi-feminist biographies out from beneath fame’s rubble.
These mononymic movies are in some sense statements about the value of what we might call “hidden stories,” but unlike more commercial such projects—the aptly titled Hidden Figures (2016), for example—they follow women who were already famous, if in slant, traumatic ways. The stories of these women—or, let’s be honest, wives—were hidden precisely by being presented, and then misread, in plain sight. Terribly visible during their lifetimes, Jackie, Priscilla, and Diana were rarely seen as human by their publics. The uneasy gamble we are all now making is that a newer, more conscientious visibility can do them belated justice by retelling history and in the process doubling the exposure.
That these movies all insist so forcefully on their subjects’ names suggests the ugly paradox at play. The invocation of a name, especially a maiden one, might claim a kind of power. But America abuses famous women by profaning their names—printing them, propagating them, making them known throughout every household in the country. In this way the name becomes detached from any semblance of authentic personality. To say it again, even in resistance, feels mostly tragic.
Priscilla was perhaps never as wounded as Princess Diana or Jackie Onassis, having survived Elvis in hard-won increments. Coppola shows her abandoning her bouffant, then picking up karate. She goes on happy, solitary drives in southern California. In the real Priscilla’s words, her freedom from Elvis began once she could “honestly vent” her anger without fear: “I stopped apologizing for my opinions and laughing at jokes I didn’t find amusing.”
The autobiography’s frankness gives us something we never truly see in the movie: a detailed chronicle of Priscilla’s mentality and the changes, slow as lava, that it braved. But by nervily claiming the truth, the book also exposes its subject to more readerly interpretations and more speculation from the press. It becomes yet another commercial piece of evidence for the Elvis machine. Between Beaulieu’s words and Coppola’s revision, we thus face two extremes of voyeurism. The first—Elvis and Me—is a book that peels the woman open, revealing her interior and making her accountable once more to an audience. The second, Priscilla, shields this interiority from view, but at the risk of turning its subject into another depthless and lacquered image, much as America did when Priscilla and Elvis were together.
Shortly before she ends the marriage, Priscilla is assaulted by Elvis in a Las Vegas hotel room. In the book and movie, Elvis tells her the same thing: “This is how a real man makes love to his woman.” In Beaulieu’s telling, he “forcefully made love to me,” after which she “wept in silence as Elvis got up to dress for the show.” Coppola’s version, however, not only obscures the catastrophe but averts it: Priscilla succeeds in pushing him away. It’s hard to know what to do with this discrepancy, only that refashioning the facts of history is not the same as redeeming them. Our curiosity persists even as we try to produce better and fairer versions of the past. We would perhaps be a healthier society if we could just let it die.
The real Priscilla, as we know, has now outlived her former husband by decades. She is the executive producer of Coppola’s film, and she is reportedly pleased with the partial record it provides. Through Coppola, we watch her leave her relationship and move away from Graceland. We never see her after this separation, which inaugurates the rest of her life. This pivot on Coppola’s part is interesting: here is a film that treats solitude rather than marriage as the fairytale ending that, like all fairytale endings, cannot be elaborated upon. That the camera leaves her at this moment also feels like a blessing; the aftermath of this new adulthood, we hope, includes some increase in privacy.
It is uncomfortable to accept that children can fall in love, partly because the inverse of this notion is that we, too, can approach love—with all its interpersonal and ethical commitments—in the solipsistic mode of children. There is nothing intrinsically edifying or refining about romantic attachments, which just as often leave us more helpless and infantile than when they began. It can feel pat, then, that at the end of the movie Priscilla gets into her car and drives away smiling faintly, now a grown-up, to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” on the soundtrack. But by that point it is what we want for her. Few lives end, or rather begin, as triumphantly as hers.