Priscilla and Sofia Coppola’s lonely girls

Priscilla and Sofia Coppola’s lonely girls

Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla. | A24

Solitude and wisdom at the movies.

Sofia Coppola’s heroines are surrounded by people and lonely as hell, enveloped in a cage visible only to them. The Priscilla of Priscilla is maybe the loneliest of all, from the movie’s first moments. We meet her sitting alone in a diner, sipping a milkshake, a new girl in a new country. She seems like a girl who prefers solitude; she does not, she tells her mother, want any new friends. The whole reason she meets Elvis Presley in the first place is that she’s visibly lonely. The reason he gives her for wanting to keep seeing her is that he’s lonely, too.

He’s not, of course; he’s Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), and he’s always attended by a pack of admirers, male and female alike. Celebrity is lonely, but in surrounding himself with family and old friends, he’s bathed in their glow — and Priscilla’s, of course. He has to have her too.

Which is how Priscilla (a brilliant Cailee Spaeny), 10 years his junior and still in high school, ends up in his home, a princess in a castle. Coppola evokes that metaphor clearly, letting Priscilla meander through Graceland’s opulence with an air of wonderment. It’s impossible not to think of Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, wandering Versailles after her marriage to the dauphin. Neither are fish out of water — each feels a sense of entitlement to be there, granted in part by their connection to a king — but they are solitary and, in a sense, trapped. Escape isn’t the goal. But the solitude soon overwhelms.

A girl with teased hair looks up at a tall man who is out of frame.
Cailee Spaeny as 16-year-old Priscilla Presley, just arrived at Graceland.

Of course Coppola, daughter of filmmaking royalty, resonates with this feeling of set-apart solitude. It resurfaces across her work — the sisters of The Virgin Suicides, the sisters of The Beguiled, the bored new wife of Lost in Translation — as a key to understanding something specific about a particular female experience. Her characters are ingénues, mostly, young women who appeal to men for their beauty and charm but live much richer interior lives than those around them suspect. When they’re in a room, they’re not fully there — they’re observing everything from some kind of psychic remove.

Priscilla is perhaps the most extreme example, because while she shares the most DNA with Marie Antoinette, she has far less agency. She actually loves her king, and his absences pain her because he is all she has. Elvis is always going off somewhere: back to America, out West, to shoot a movie, to play a tour. He needs her at home, “keeping the home fires burning,” looking pretty for the camera. What someone tells Marie Antoinette near the beginning of her film applies equally to Priscilla: “All eyes will be upon you.” Her safest place is in Elvis’s bedroom.

But swept up by her star before she even has the chance to grow up, she is at the mercy of his whims, and he has many of them. His books. His photos. His moods. His tempers. When he’s not there — or when he shifts away from her — she is left without much to do. She can’t even sit in the yard and play with her puppy, lest the gawkers at the gates catch sight of her and turn it into tabloid content.

Coppola’s talent is in taking this story — much harder-edged when translated to Versailles — and giving it the rosy sheen of a girl’s memory, of feeling the intensity of a star’s rays on her so keenly that there’s nothing to do but bask in it, at least for a while. That sheen comes from the movie’s source material, Priscilla Presley’s memoirs, which recount her years with Elvis the way she remembered them. That is why Priscilla is not a “biopic” about Priscilla Presley; it’s a memoir. It is a story told not about, but through its main subject.

A woman with teased, dark hair in white.
Priscilla, as Elvis molds her into his ideal woman.

And that’s what makes it so fertile for Coppola’s rumination on solitude and loneliness. It’s the same story that her other characters live: a woman set apart somehow from the world around her. The story never leaves her quite where it found her. She grows in the solitude. She is the modern discoverer of an ancient truth: that the pain of loneliness is accompanied by gaining wisdom and self-understanding, something that she can give to others in the future. In Coppola’s films, that doesn’t always end well; in Priscilla, it does.

There’s a funny echo in Priscilla of Coppola’s Somewhere, her rare film with a man as its sole protagonist. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a dissipated movie star, is living the rarefied loneliness of the celebrity in the Chateau Marmont. He’s surrounded by publicists and pole dancers and parties and he hates being physically alone, because that’s when he’s confronted with how hollow he is. It’s when his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) reenters his life that he starts to realize the difference between being surrounded by people and actually connecting with them.

At the start of Somewhere, he’s driving his sporty car in circles. At the end, he drives his car in a straight line, directly into the desert. We don’t know where he’s going, but he seems to, a smile on his face for the first time in a long time. It’s a moment of transformation.

Priscilla, too, finally ends her time at Graceland, but only after we see her subtly begin to trade Elvis’s world for her own. She takes karate lessons; she has a dinner party with people who are her friends, not his. She ventures, in other words, outside the castle, and realizes that a life outside is what she wants. So she gets in her car, takes a deep breath, and drives straight out the Graceland gates, accompanied by Dolly Parton singing “I Will Always Love You.” They’re similar transformations, in a way: growth, a new understanding of what matters in life. For Coppola, this is a lesson taught in quietness, in separation from the hubbub.

So I suppose that it’s no wonder she makes movies. It’s in her DNA, of course. But there’s another reason, too: There’s no better place to experience the contemplative impulse, that quietness and solitude, at least for a little while, than a cinema.

Priscilla is playing in theaters.

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