In urgent defense of Sofia Coppola and her upcoming film "Priscilla"

Why audiences should give the famed director-writer credit where credit is due

by Mary Kurbanov 

Graphic by Domenick FiniJuly 11 2023

Coming off the heels of last year’s renewed obsession with Elvis Presley, director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola plans to ignite the curiosity of Elvis fans once again with her upcoming film “Priscilla.” As of now, the precise release date is unclear, but “Priscilla” will hit theaters sometime in October of this year. According to the recently released trailer, Coppola is basing the film off Priscilla Presley’s own memoir “Elvis and Me” — a detailed depiction of teenage Priscilla’s first encounters with Elvis, their blossoming relationship and their later divorce. 


Already, Coppola’s newest movie-baby is bringing about controversy. Social media users across a variety of platforms are voicing their disgust at Coppola for allegedly romanticizing the disturbing marriage story of Priscilla and Elvis Presley — after all, Priscilla was just fourteen when she first met the rockstar. He was twenty-four. 

However, these frankly underdeveloped conclusions about the nature of the film diminish the competency of Sofia Coppola as an expert in interpreting female teenagehood. Coppola has had a fairly extensive track record of examining the oppression of loneliness, the confines of excess and the death of innocence as felt deeply by the young women she depicts and is selling to. “Priscilla” does not seem to offer Coppola’s own nostalgia for the allure of the Elvis-Priscilla bond, but rather centers the perspective of a child who is thrust into a world that takes advantage of her yearning. 


Even before “Priscilla,” Coppola has refused to shy away from what defines the tragedy of teenage girl-dom. Her directorial debut “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and contentious “Marie Antoinette” (2006) both feature young heroines who suffer under the pressure of being used — for sex, for status, for entertainment — while they are still coming into adulthood. 


Sofia Coppola — while often unjustly cast aside for creating films that are supposedly vapid and lacking in substance — is more capable than critics give her credit for. According to Amy Backman-Rogers, it is through the image and the lush, cleverly fashioned aesthetics with which Coppola captures the aching death of the childhood ego as girls transition into women.


“Coppola is a filmmaker who’s telling story with images, not with words,” Backman-Rogers said in an interview with Dazed. “Sometimes the most important things that need to be articulated in a film, or what she’s getting at, are the unspoken things: the painful things that can’t be put into words. Loss is one of them, the transitions of adolescence to adulthood, and death. I think she’s far above and beyond her peers in this way.”


The frills and delicate framing behind Coppola’s films juxtapose the sinister undertones of the plot, where looking closer at each scene reveals something awry. Take the sleepy neighborhood in “The Virgin Suicides.” A rusty swing set. Green, perfectly manicured lawns. An idyllic suburban scene, but viewers know the ending from the very start. The idealism of the American Dream and white mediocrity cannot save the girls from their eventual demise. 


Roxana Hadadi furthers this notion in her analysis of “The Virgin Suicides” for the Crooked Marquee. Her main takeaway from Coppola’s works is her ability to understand how girls become trapped between their desire for connection and external forces’ desires to suppress them. 


“But what Coppola does with that observation is make plain the ‘imprisonment of being a girl,’ with the myriad contrasting expectations and assumptions placed upon young women,” Hadadi said. “The Lisbon girls’ parents were devoted to controlling them, not knowing them; Trip wanted to conquer Lux, and left her behind after he did; even the neighborhood boys, who grow up to matter-of-factly say that their own wives pale in comparison with the Lisbon girls, wanted to be the sisters’ saviors more than they wanted to be their friends.” 


Fans of Coppola — many of whom are teenage girls — relate to the struggles faced by the Lisbon girls or Marie Antoinette or the members of the “Bling Ring” because they are forced to renege their innocence in similar ways. They must be desirable but virginal. They must be high up on the social ladder but not enough to overtake the man. They must be free but only for viewing. 


Of course, the criticism of Coppola is not unfounded, especially the narrow mindedness in her elementary approach to race. In her most recent flick “The Beguiled” (2017), Coppola drew mass disapproval for her purposeful exclusion of a Black enslaved character and a biracial character who were in the original book. YouTube essayist Broey Deschanel finds significant flaws with this choice. 

 

“In fact, including a Black female [enslaved] character would’ve done wonders for “The Beguiled,” Deschanel said. “For one, it would capture the heinousness of the Confederacy, which in the actual film is portrayed as ambiguously apolitical. A well-written Black female character would also show the resilience they showed in the face of incredible adversity. Most importantly, by framing a Black female character in the context of a Sofia Coppola film, Black women and girls would be able to see themselves in the soft femininity they are so often excluded from in media.”


Coppola’s search for the “universal girl” unfortunately casts white characters as the default, as the blank slate. She favors characters who are consistently young, white, affluent and tortured — she writes what she knows. 


But in terms of what we can expect from “Priscilla,” Coppola has proven time and time again that she understands what young women go through, at least to a certain extent. While she falters in centering diverse stories and propping up actual representation, Coppola’s mastery of soft femininity as means to comment on loss and repression paint her as a director who will most likely be able to create a nuanced portrait of Priscilla Presley. 


Perhaps we should let the Presley obsession linger on for a while longer, and give “Priscilla” a chance in theaters October 2023.