Tuesday, October 10, 2023

PRISCILLA** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 7

PRISCILLA is the second film of the day that is well enough directed and acted but where you leave wondering why on earth it was made. The plot can be summarised as "child is groomed by celebrity, coercively controlled, is fine with it until she isn't". Maybe there's a film in that. This film isn't it.  

When we meet Priscilla she a fourteen year old and very visibly a young immature girl.  The way in which Elvis Presley's fellow US soldier picks her up for a party with Elvis feels like he has procured her.  Writer-director Sofia Coppola might have made more of her being underage than she chooses to. Important scenes are eliminated.  We are left wondering exactly what Elvis said to her parents to make them send her to the United States and sign over guardianship. It's all left very vague and thus remains frustrating.  Similarly, we never know if Elvis has a pattern of going for underage girls, or whether Priscilla is "special". It's clear that while their relationship is more or less chaste for a while (at least according to her), he is satisfying his needs elsewhere.

Meanwhile for pretty much the entire running time of the film, Priscilla is a mute doll, whom Elvis dresses up.  She looks like a doll next to him, especially given actor Jacob Elordi's height.  Coppola doesn't give her much of an interior life, and while I felt sorry for her, after two hours I didn't feel as if I knew her.  Maybe that's because until she left Elvis, she hadn't been allowed to get to know herself? Either way, it makes for rather a dull film.

All of which is rather a shame. Caillee Spaeny is visually compelling as Priscilla even when she is given little to do. Jacob Elordi gives an effortless performance as Elvis, impressing with his accent-work.  But I just wanted more.

While my mind was wondering, I was thinking what might have attracted Coppola to this story, and kept seeing parallels to her MARIE ANTOINETTE. Both begin with a barely teenager plucked from her loving but provincial family home and taken to a glamorous estate that will become her prison, complete with courtiers. Both begin and end when she arrives and then leaves. Both see a young girl overwhelmed by rules about what she can do, who she can see, what she can wear.  Both see their hair become taller as the years progress. Both decline to show us life beyond the gates.  Even in shot framing and construction there are similar choices. Compare and contrast the egregious shots of luscious glutinous food in MARIE ANTOINETTE with the scene in which successive plates of junk food are placed outside of Elvis' door. 

The difference is that MARIE ANTOINETTE had stakes. It wasn't just an unhappy marriage. It was a political crisis. PRISCILLA is "just" the story of an unhappy marriage.  If Coppola had successfully mined Priscilla's interior life, in the way that made me cry for Marie-Antoinette, that would've been enough.  But it is not enough here.

PRISCILLA is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Venice and London 2023.  It opens in the US on November 3rd.

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