On »Priscilla« on Movies

»Unintentionally interesting« was my two-word review after we left the cinema, but I could think of other ones now that I am thinking about it: »very creepy,«  »wonderful acting« (her), »kinda bad,« »beautifully made,«»incredibly meticulous« »terrible acting« (him), »lazy writing,« »[CITATION NEEDED],« »chill, please.« I don’t think I’ve ever watched another Sofia Coppola movie besides Virgin Suicides (which I think I like) and Lost in Translation (which I fucking despise), so maybe the aesthetics of Priscilla were a bit more unexpectedly striking to me than they otherwise would have been, but to me, my eyes and my mind, they were so incredibly interesting because they absolutely ran counter to the actual narrative. 

But what is the narrative? Well, in a sense there’s two: it’s a story about the grooming of a young woman, but also a rather explicit apologia of the perpetrator’s actions. Yes, Elvis hit on a 14-year-old and then hit her a few years later, but he was homesick and his mum had died, he was just a troubled guy and, you know, he always regretted it immediately when he did become violent or controlling and also he didn’t even pop her cherry when she wanted him to because that wouldn’t be okay, and yeah, so maybe he bought her some guns (*phallic symbolism intensifies*) instead and that is also not age-appropriate, but you see, there’s a reason his father is doing all this stuff for him and nan is constantly around; he just never really grew up, and then, well, the drugs happened, so many drugs. 

It is hard to argue with this without stepping on molecularly thin ice. You see, the movie Priscilla is based on the memoirs of Priscilla Presley who, as a title card points out suspiciously early in the movie, has executive produced Priscilla. This is her story, that is how she perceived it, her truth, we’re being told. And wouldn’t it be weirdly anti-feminist of us to interpret her actual life in certain ways when that is just not how she thinks about that? Like, this movie is not called Elvis for a reason. What I mean is that we cannot claim authority over this woman’s story, or else it’s us who become the groomers—the people who coerce her into a role in which she doesn’t want to be. Right? Like, just imagine me having the audacity of telling this woman on some stupid website that she’s been victimised, like I would actually be the one victimising her then, wouldn’t I?

I don’t really know much about Sofia Coppola, how she approaches all those films that I haven’t seen, but I guess my impression is that plots are not necessarily very interesting to her. Priscilla at least offers residual storytelling at best. There’s so many montages, made in that okay-let’s-get-this-over-with way that turn them into strangely functionalistic moments in a movie that otherwise is pure form. But I guess you could say that about literally anything that happens in this movie. Take those moments of violence. How long does the longest verbal or physical altercation we see in this movie last? 30 seconds at best? It’s always all over in a flash, all the time, because these scenes had to be in there to represent something rather than tell it. The writing is not narrative, it is illustrative. This is visual, not verbal communication, even when they talk a lot.

But what, then, are the images about? And you see, that’s where it gets really interesting for me. Look, you probably know better than I do that Coppola is really, really good at doing that Wong Kar-Wai kind of thing where she just perfectly frames a character and lets them be at the centre of attention for the exact amount of time you need to sympathise with them through pure vibe osmosis while you are so completely taken with the scene as a whole that you can’t even put your finger on what’s so impressive and emotive or immersive or whatever about it. Coppola is a, erm, vISuaL STorYtelLer who creates scenes that feel like tableaux more than anything. It’s just very impressionistic stuff, executed to perfection. So of course it is really interesting to me when a movie claims to tell a story full of imperfection in such a perfectionist way because that creates a fucktonne of friction, doesn’t it?

Like, Coppola is also really, really good at doing that Wes Anderson thing where the use of lighting, colours and colour grading and all that stuff creates this oppressively exclusive atmosphere, or maybe escapist if you want to be a little nicer about it: there is no world, no actual real world in these images, they are an absolute negation of the ugliness of the one we live in, they are in complete denial about the capital R Real. Of course we never actually see Priscilla and Elvis fuck, and ultimately she gives birth by entering the hospital and then leaving it a little later. These are characters that simply do not seem to have genitals. None of them has ever taken a shit in their life. And why would they? That is what real people do, but they are hyperreal, vague notions of emotions rather than beings made of flesh, blood, bones or shit.

You see, everything in this movie—the set design, the costumes, the make-up!—is so incredibly me. ti. cu. lous. that this is becoming progressively uncanny the longer you watch it. There’s these anachronistic but suitable needle drops throughout the movie (Dan fucking Deacon!?) that kind of create on-the-nose V-Effekte, but also there’s the more subtle stuff. Take the reoccurring scenes in which someone puts this pill or that gun into her hands. Take Jacob Elordi’s comically bad performance that makes Elvis seem like something straight out of a Heiner Müller play, while Cailee Spaeny constantly (and brilliantly) appears to be acting about acting. And don’t get me started on all these details, like those, what was it, plastic flamingos in the background when they are in California? This is how Barbieworld should have actually looked: like a monument to its own madeness.

The point I’m clumsily trying to make here is that the ways in which Coppola so meticulously and indeed perfectly stages all of this to the absolutely neurotic point where eVErY FrAMe iS LiKE a PAIntiNg … Yeah, doesn’t that cast a huge shadow on the reliability of the narrator and her memories? There is no world in Priscilla, just a succession of incredibly detailed tableaux, and yeah, that is how memory works—but not real life. And doesn’t that then, if you think about it a little more, which I did because I found all of this so interesting, call into question the sheer nature of the idea of (auto-)biography and perception, by which I mean truth, Priscilla’s or anyone else’s?

Look, a few rows closer to the screen there were some dumbfucks actually filming various scenes from the movie, and of course that’s an idiotic thing to do, but now that I think of it, maybe they were on to something. Perhaps they had, through pure vibe osmosis, understood and internalised that this is what the movie, or rather media in general, are all about: the deconstruction of themselves, by which I mean that movies are always about how we watch movies; through our own lenses and with total disregard to anyone’s intentions.

Like, of course, for example, the narrative in Priscilla is ultimately really about isolation and how our dreams just never come quite true but that we all have a chance for second chances or something, and I guess it does not explicitly intend to tell a story about grooming or serve as a justification of it, but that’s just what I chose to see like those utter psychos a few metres away chose to watch the screen through their screen, so then I created my own meaning out of that like I am doing it now by using an anecdote about those people filming the movie, which very conveniently supports my argument. Do you think that really happened? If it did, would it matter? You see, that’s how that stuff works.

I’m not sure whether Coppola wanted to remind us of that, I’m fairly certain that she actually didn’t. Like, of course she constantly shoves mediation as a theme into our faces by having Priscilla read about her husband having presumably genitalless sex with random starlets, etc. But I think by just doing that Sofia Coppola kind of thing that she is really, really good at and creating this beautifully made movie about essentially very little of substance with a lot of style, she maybe, just maybe unintentionally made an even more concise point; a point about nobody having authority over stories but about everyone being an author.