Sofia Coppola’s Subversive Search for Truth in ‘Priscilla’

As with much of her other work, the opening of Sofia Coppola’s latest film, “Priscilla,” is all about textures. A pair of manicured feet sink into a shag carpet; a fingernail is carefully polished in red; we see the back of a prodigious black bouffant, then the dexterous painting of a dramatic cat eye with black liner. Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny) paces around Graceland relentlessly. There’s nothing for her to do, and too much for her to process.

“Priscilla,” which had a limited release in October, is just one of a throng of biopics vying for attention this year. The genre has been around for almost as long as narrative cinema itself, but in recent years it has become a major Hollywood phenomenon. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which depicted the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, was one-half of this year’s biggest cinematic event: Opening on the same night as Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” it made more money at the box office than Nolan’s past two releases combined. Two other highly anticipated releases will follow this fall: Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” about the man behind the car, and Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” about the marriage of the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre.

In a film industry dominated by intellectual-property grabs, a burst streaming bubble and a frustrated labor force, it’s not surprising that filmmakers are reaching for the biopic as a way to get funded. William Kohler explained this strategy in the British film publication Little White Lies: “As studios have discovered, one of the only semi-reliable ways to lure viewers out of their living rooms is to tap into a property that the public already has a proven interest in,” such as a notable figure or celebrity.

It helps that the genre is now nearly synonymous with critical acclaim. In the last six years, three Academy Awards for best actor in a leading role and two for best actress in a leading role have gone to actors playing the subject of a biopic. Nominations in the supporting category have similarly been crowded with performers in real-life roles; and in the past 10 years, only one Oscars ceremony failed to include a biopic among best-picture nominees.

For directors and studios, the biopic provides the perfect intersection between artistic ambition and marketing potential. By tapping into a wealth of available material, the biopic stirs up anticipation in an audience trained to devour recycled media and risks becoming its glamorous culmination. Before “Oppenheimer” the movie, there was Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biographical book, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” and before the biography there was the 1983 Esquire article “The Ambivalence of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” which came out two years after Jon H. Else’s documentary “The Day After Trinity.” These pre-existing texts can function almost like a feast for an audience insatiably hungry for information. Taken all together, they make a powerful case for the biographical subject’s relevance, thereby boosting the film’s own status: Oppenheimer nearly becomes a field of knowledge, rather than a man. But in this cycle, the very expectation for the film ends up obscuring what should be its real raison d’être: the filmmaker’s search for truth in the interpretation of a person’s story.

In his 2010 book “Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre,” the film scholar Dennis Bingham suggests that “the aim of all biopics [is] to reveal the ‘real person’ behind the public persona.” If we come to any narrative film relying on a suspension of disbelief, then the challenge for the filmmaker is to use artifice to reveal the person behind the persona — in other words, using fiction to reveal truth. In “Priscilla,” Coppola’s second biopic and third film based on real events, her attempt to do that is of a piece with her thematic sensibility: Her oeuvre is dedicated to teenagers by turns confused, suffering and misguided. Moored by this fascination, Coppola centers her interpretation of Priscilla’s stolen adolescence in a story that, just a year after a raucous reception to Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of him, could have easily become about Elvis (Jacob Elordi).

In a climate so saturated with hype, Coppola’s quiet, subtle film feels fresh. “Priscilla” evokes the kind of intense interiority that can result when a young woman’s life is robbed by a man who controls her, especially when that man is the most famous person alive. We barely hear Priscilla speak, and in the ringing silence of her existence, we feel the full force of Elvis’s grip. We can’t know what was going through Priscilla’s mind any more than we can grasp the physics equations that Oppenheimer solved in his, but we can imagine — with the help of visual clues, like Priscilla’s small frame against an enormous, dark bed; or the hyperfocus on things she can control, like nail polish and eyeliner — what it’s like to be a girl whose life becomes small in the shadow of a powerful man. We learn how lonely it is there.

But the director is not the only artist whose interpretation might inch us closer to the person behind the persona: Sometimes, a transcendent performance will do it. Robert De Niro’s turn as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) is one such example. In his book “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act,” Isaac Butler points out that following De Niro’s performance, “elaborate tales of preparation, research and physical transformation became a major component of media and award campaigns.” Today this strategy is still widespread, in ways both deliberate and not. Long past last year’s premiere of “Elvis,” the internet still overflowed with videos of the actor Austin Butler speaking with “Elvis voice.” By comparison, Spaeny’s Priscilla is understated almost to the point of repression: She evokes the torment of the woman’s inner life through a restrained but brittle exterior.

An interest in the private experience of a public person’s life is key to any biographical project; the journalist Janet Malcolm once wrote that “the transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.” But the best biopics value complexity over appeal and advance a new and surprising interpretation of their subject in order to subvert our expectations altogether.

Prizing subtlety, Coppola forgoes an approach to Priscilla’s story that would treat it as a bottomless source of available material. The pared-down script, based on Priscilla’s memoir “Elvis and Me,” doesn’t indulge celebrity gossip or invite the kind of scrutiny that characterized the success of “Oppenheimer.” The resulting effect is that, rather than a field of knowledge, Priscilla Presley emerges as a woman whose development we come to know through the film itself. As it closes, we don’t get a sense of what Priscilla’s life became once she took it back for herself, into the private sphere. Our prying interests are left unsatisfied.

We might have expected “Priscilla” to be a kind of response to Luhrmann’s ostentatious “Elvis.” Maybe because Coppola herself knows the depths of operating in the shadow of a larger-than-life man — her father, the director Francis Ford Coppola — she delivers a film with a cleareyed, refreshing humanity. When Priscilla’s bouffant gets so big that it starts obscuring the person underneath, Coppola dismantles it. She puts Priscilla’s two manicured feet on the ground. Coppola’s attention to textures says something poignant about her biographical project: Tactile sense is not the stuff of myth but of being human.

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