A portrait of unhappiness, violence in relationships and the moral impunity of icons

The biopic Priscilla, written and directed by Sofía Coppola, overflows with interest in the memoirs of the wife of one of the musical idols of the 20th century, Elvis Presley. The film is a valuable cinematographic testimony about unhappiness and violence in relationships, based on the story of humiliation and loneliness of the woman behind the famous character, trapped since adolescence in a golden cage. Coppola’s gaze encompasses dramatic expressions of inequality, female objectification, deception, and misconceptions about love. The North American filmmaker notices an increasingly widespread phenomenon, that of icons who believe they enjoy a status free of ethical responsibilities.

“Why are you leaving if you have everything a woman wants?” Sofia Coppola’s camera films one of the final scenes in which the famous rocker, Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), in his darkest side, poses an extremely revealing question. The singer is lying on the bed in a luxurious suite in Las Vegas, with signs of having consumed large doses of alcohol and drugs. His wife, Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny), after escaping an attempted sexual abuse, marks a turning point in the couple’s history and in her own life, by daring to communicate her decision to put an end to a long-term relationship fifteen years: “Either I leave now or I will never be able to leave.” Priscilla Beaulieu concludes, at that moment, an initiatory journey that transforms her reality and liberates her by becoming aware that, since adolescence, she was being the victim of a progressive annihilation, a blind submission, based on the destruction of self-confidence, in the denial of her own voice, of the right to narrate her life in the first person and to express desires and preferences, something that others and, especially, her partner did for her.

The North American filmmaker, Sofía Coppola, with the biopic Priscilla, once again places the focus on a topic that, from different perspectives, she addresses in previous films such as The Virgin Suicides (1999), the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation (2003) or Marie Antoinette (2003). 2006). The director has a proven ability to investigate stories of women trapped in unhappy lives and alleged fairy tales that evolve into violent relationships. In this new film, based on the memoirs Elvis and Me (1985), written by the legendary singer’s wife, Coppola slowly explores, through Priscilla’s odyssey, the pathologies of love in unequal bonds, the objectification of women, deception and misconceptions about love.

In the film biography, the story of Priscilla and Elvis begins in 1959 as an apparent [1] fairy tale. The fourteen-year-old girl, daughter of a US Air Force officer, appears alone having an ice cream in the bar of a North American military base in Germany, when a soldier approaches her and offers, by surprise, to introduce her to the singer at a party. Elvis Presley is then 25 years old and is stationed as a US Army soldier also in Friedberg, coinciding with the takeoff of his artistic career. Instantly attracted to Cilla’s innocence and naivety, he shows a personal side that fascinates the girl as he talks to her about the loneliness he feels after the recent loss of her mother. Enthralled by the idol and, at the same time, shocked by a revelation that makes her feel privileged among the legion of women who, in those years, followed the nicknamed “king of rock,” she loses focus from her studies and begins to consume drugs that the singer offers her. The first time, he gives her a pill “so you don’t fall asleep at school.” On a second occasion, he offers her another one that leaves her sleeping for two days. That’s where the young woman’s metamorphosis begins. Furthermore, his manipulative skills and the fame of his character make it easy for Priscilla’s parents to give her, when she has just turned seventeen, guardianship of her so that she can move to Graceland, Elvis’s luxurious residence in Memphis.

Power relations without a moral compass

Elvis shapes Priscilla, like James Stewart does with Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Initially, he persuades her to change her hair color and wear more eye makeup and ends up buying her the clothes she needs to wear, deciding on sexual relations and isolating her, little by little, from the world in a golden cage. He even forbids her from working to ensure she is there for him when he needs her: “Me or a career”. “I need you to be there when I call you.”

Scenes of violence, rudeness and insults in public and private follow one another. On one occasion, he throws a chair at her because she thinks about one of his songs, something he doesn’t like. “You need someone to take you to this point”, a sadistic irony with which the famous singer and actor justifies the attacks. Priscilla becomes accustomed to rumors of infidelity, attacks, threats to break up the relationship, and Elvis taking more and more sleeping and waking up pills as his popularity grows. “I don’t need the opinion of a fan,” the artist replies with contempt when Priscilla hints at the relationship between this consumption and outbursts of violence. Decentered and unable to make decisions, the young woman agreed to marry the singer in 1967 and, shortly after, she became pregnant. Precisely, one of the most controversial scenes of the abusive relationships portrayed in Sofía Coppola’s film refers to the moment in which Priscilla goes into labor. The filmmaker’s camera recreates a scene that shows the woman’s submission to the dictates of her husband. She puts on her makeup carefully as if she were going to a party, she puts on false eyelashes and chooses the dress he would like before leaving for the hospital.

In power relationships in the couple, the objective is for the dominated person to have unlimited access to behaviors desired by those who feel they have the right to impose certain behaviors and have their expectations met, undermining the freedom of those who are affected by the decisions.

The filmmaker, while covering in the film the dramatic expressions of violence in the couple and the pathology of love with an intimate tone, focuses on a fact that, although it is not new, is increasingly widespread. It has to do with celebrities who believe they enjoy a higher status than others and, by virtue of their influence, consider themselves free of ethical responsibilities to do what they want, without caring about the damage they may cause. They believe that fame gives them the right to take what they want, confusing their needs with those of other people, with little or no empathy towards others. But, someone, no matter how famous, powerful and even infinitely eccentric, is obliged to recognize certain things about his environment, the existence of other people and their demands.

Bioethical assessment

Sofía Coppola’s film offers, as we have seen, very current themes that call for a bioethical reflection on love as a moral phenomenon. Personal relationships cannot be an area exempt from morality, as they are closely related to the view of the other as a person and as a good, central issues of ethics and human life.

From a perspective very close to personalism, the philosopher Iris Murdoch, in her work The Sovereignty of Good, points to the centrality of love, emotional responsibility, commitment, care, loyalty and empathy as essential aspects of what she calls a loving attention. For this author, erotic or merely sexual love decreases the motivation to seek goodness and becomes an impediment or a source of deception, enveloping the other person in a selfish atmosphere that does not allow them to be perceived as they really are.

The moral response, in short, is the response to the particular good of that other person with whom I am relating from equality and reciprocity. The perception and reception of the other as a person, as Jonathan Glover warns, is essential to take into account who our action falls on and establish the limits of good and bad.

The philosopher René Girard, in his research on mimetic desire, warns that following others, without a goal or stopping to reflect on the consequences of our desires or our actions, makes us run the risk of copying their gaps. Something like this happens to Priscilla in the film, who by adopting Elvis’s desires, also copied the emptiness of her existential meaning and became the particular doll of a broken toy, a product of North American consumer society.


Amparo Aygües – Master’s Degree in Bioethics from the Catholic University of Valencia – Collaborator of the Bioethics Observatory

[1] In this case, the adjective of presumed or apparent that accompanies the concept of fairy tale is intended to preserve that true fairy tales have a positive moral dimension.