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'Priscilla' a dreamy but stultifying portrait of an American princess

Jacob Elordi as Elvis, right, and Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla star in a scene from "Priscilla." A24 via AP

There’s a scene in the middle of “Priscilla,” Sofia Coppola’s biopic of Priscilla Presley, which contains a surreal detail that had to have been at least one of Coppola’s sparks of inspiration. Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny), heavily pregnant, has gone into labor. As her husband, the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) rushes around the house, raising a commotion, Priscilla reaches for her false eyelashes, carefully putting them on before rushing to the hospital in her signature look of black winged eyeliner and a giant black beehive. She will emerge later with every hair and lash intact, clutching their newborn daughter, Lisa Marie.

The whole story lives inside this moment of the false eyelashes applied before delivering a baby, and from this bud blooms Coppola’s dreamy but stultifying portrait of an American princess trapped in an iconic palace. In the same way that she captured teen queen Marie Antoinette in her 2006 film of the same name, Coppola turns her attention toward American icons in “Priscilla,” adapting Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me,” imagining the reality of a young girl wed to the King.

The hair is almost as big as the French queen’s powdered ‘dos, but Priscilla’s is dyed pitch black, “to bring out her eyes,” as Elvis instructs, and it of course matches his own raven locks. In an opening sequence, Priscilla’s toes pad across plush pink carpet, liquid liner swiped onto her lids, nails polished. The film is about her making — which is to say her image — as she is plucked from a diner at an American military base in Germany as a shy 14-year-old, then courted, groomed, shipped off, dressed, teased and painted into rock royalty, while kept behind glass like a doll, trotted out for photo ops.

Coppola has obviously long been interested in this kind of story, of the teenage girls who were put on pedestals and then pilloried, whose pictures are more famous than their personalities. But “Priscilla” floats on the surface, not quite delving into the interiority of its subject, though Spaeny delivers a unique and challenging performance, one that is quiet, subtle and all in the eyes.

Her Priscilla, when she enters the orbit of Elvis, is to be seen more than she is heard, and we chart her evolution through the height of her hair, as it goes up and then down again, and the volume of eye makeup she uses. Even their “sex scene” (when she is of age and they are wed) is image-obsessed, merely a photo shoot, where the young couple snaps dozens of Polaroids in their Graceland bedroom, where most of the film takes place.

Coppola’s thematic goal is obvious early on — this is the story of young girl imprisoned in a golden palace, her existence and appearance controlled by her unfathomably famous husband. But “Priscilla” spins its wheels for a large part of the film’s runtime, which is frustrating, though perhaps effectively evocative of Priscilla’s own existence as the young bride of Elvis.

The film is an exercise in yearning: Priscilla yearns to go to Elvis’ party in Germany, she yearns for a date with him, she yearns for a phone call when he returns to America, she yearns for a visit, to live with him, to finish school, to get married, to have sex. But despite all the yearning, the results are disappointingly anticlimactic. She gets everything she wants and then finds herself shut up in a padded cell — the carpeted interior of Graceland, the curtains drawn to shield from prying eyes. If it’s a bit of a bore to watch Priscilla drift about in her dim bedroom, well imagine what it was like for her.

Elordi as Elvis doesn’t need to capture the feral sexuality that Austin Butler brought to the iconic rock n’ roller in last year’s “Elvis,” rather, Coppola needs him to play in a far more intimate register. He’s initially appealing, and sometimes sweet, but more often than not, he’s a mansplaining dolt, reading to Priscilla from his books of Eastern philosophy, instructing her on how to dress, running off with his gaggle of hangers-on, a crew of anonymous members of his “Memphis Mafia.” He trains her to respond to his whims and she learns to shape her behavior to his. He introduces her to pills and partying, and Coppola presents it all matter-of-factly; her criticism lies only in the honesty of the portrayal, and sometimes it seems rather ambivalent.

Coppola crafts her representation of Priscilla’s gilded cage with utmost care: naturalistic cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd, stunning production design by Tamara Deverell, and costumes by Stacey Battat. But once she sets it all up, “Priscilla” spins and spins aimlessly, like a ballerina in a music box, turning until the song runs out. And maybe that’s exactly the point.

“Priscilla,” an A24 release in theaters, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for drug use and some language. Running time: 113 minutes. 2.5 stars out of four.

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