You don’t know me, but I know you. So, I feel authorized to write this letter. On Sunday, my partner and I dressed up to watch Priscilla. We picked up soft and shiny fabrics for the romantic dresses we wore. Driving to the theater, we listened to dream pop, shoegaze and any other musical genre that evokes clouds moving fast and skinny dipping in a shimmering river. Again, you don’t know me, but I know that you understand the sublime effect of distorted guitars, airy vocals and echoes. We both dance to indie rock anthems on a daily basis and I can tell that builds a good part of our public personas. Anyway, the level of preparation to watch your film was something extraordinary.
Going to the theater should be more than giving two hours of your life to a visual experience. We picked a day to embrace a whole aesthetic and forget reality for once. It actually happens a lot, whenever the filmmaker has a solid identity. However, that preparation isn’t as literal as cosplaying some character from a saga and calling it a day. It is a nameless feeling and an abstract sensation. It is something else that belongs to each of your work, since the short Lick The Star (1998). Occasionally, I think about the main character’s tedious quote when asked about a class assignment: “I laughed… I cried…”. It was delivered with a hilarious deadpan and, because of that, is so brutally feminine. It also depicts a delicate and melancholic alienation. And it is beautiful.
Stills from Lick The Star (short directed by Sofia Coppola in 1998)
Priscilla was all of those things and more. During the film, there was a fragile glass separating me from the emptiness of a girl who was so filled with love, and at the same time someone dealing with absence. Still, you didn’t make her a victim or Elvis an unappealing male predator. You didn’t protect him either. It was just Priscilla’s point of view, from beginning to end with all the puzzleness from the contradictory emotions vibrating in a relationship like that. The naivety of a girl who falls in love with an icon and the heartbreak of that same girl, as she realizes that the idealization of this romance is far from reality. These days, there is so much effort to construct a feminist narrative. Sometimes, those shallow attempts in contemporary narrative hides the vulnerability in female characters, as if sensitivity suggested weakness. Still, the effort is unnecessary if you are seeing a human being with complexities and feelings. Just a person, who is strong and fragile at the same time. If you are an artist who sees women with that level of care and delicacy, the respect will be evoked naturally and effortlessly. It is a well-crafted and elegant story, capable of communicating with the audiences. Not a lecture. And, for recognizing that and applying in your practice, I thank you. As an audience, I refused to be lectured or manipulated to absorb simplistic points of views that won’t transform me as a person.
The film suggests grooming a young naive girl from the beginning. At the same time, it expresses the loneliness of a teenager far from her hometown, who suddenly has validation from one of the biggest rock stars in pop culture. The film is really strong in its capacity of reading Priscilla’s mind through subtle actions, instead of imposing a third perspective from the filmmaker. That new perspective usually comes with false neutrality or moral superiority. Far from that directing style, you gave Priscilla space and let Sofia understand her, while using your style to communicate her feelings (not your judgment of them). The first time the protagonist and Elvis are separated, there is a quiet and graceful montage of Priscilla in her bedroom. Records, magazines and the infinite wait that only a teenage girl can access. We cried watching that sequence. It wasn’t dramatic, the sound design felt even minimalistic and it wasn’t made to make anyone cry. But my partner and I cried, because we were girls once and thoughts of tumultuous sadness were in the subtext. We cried because you took your own time in that montage, in which expository lines weren’t necessary. We cried because it was feminine from beginning to the end.
Props from Sofia’s most recent film and Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla
That montage reminded me of a sequence from The Virgin Suicides (1999). The girls are grounded and their only pleasure is listening to records through the phone, played by the boys from a house across the street. There is a certain boredom in both of those moments. As if boredom was the last or only option for broken expectations. The time stretches in isolation. This type of montage has a cousin: the euphoric montage. The glorious alienation and exciting lack of purpose. In your universe it can go from provocative polaroids in bed with your partner to a birthday party in Versailles. It is fun, exciting and youthful. But it can end in aggression, such as in Priscilla or a dirty palace with rests of expenses, a decadence that only suggests the luxury that once existed there. I feel confused, because moments like those cut my throat and at the same time it is heaven.
In paradise, I listen to “Playground Love” by Air and lay alone in a huge landscape (I am the only one there and I look small). The field is so mesmerizing with cold colors in every detail and diffused soft light. I am wearing silk and lace in pale colors. I look beautiful in them. I reached paradise by car and my face through the window looks particularly mysterious. Nobody should have direct access to my mind. In paradise, I’ve chosen pointless moments of happiness to ignore the fact that I feel terribly alone and alienated. I will avoid suffering and the confrontation of profound feelings by singing at a karaoke bar in a foreign country, having fun in Paris Hilton’s personal closet (that I broke into) and inviting friends to see me perform an opera. This heaven is so charming and I never want to leave. But I am so empty and time is so slow.
In order: Marie Antoinette (2006), Lost in Translation (2003), The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Somewhere (2010)
This is not enough to illustrate what your cinematic world provokes in me. I also know that other women can relate, especially the ones reading Sylvia Plath and listening to Lana Del Rey. In my early twenties, I was bored and alienated most of the time. Suddenly, I am alone, whether I am with or without people around. For some reason, being surrounded by pretty objects, clothes, design and art makes the whole melancholic experience more bearable. This type of female isolation is very silent and does not ask for help, unless you read between the lines. The climax is hidden and the equation of cause versus effect seems too simplistic to be adopted. Underneath the story, there is the role of a Christian and conservative white suburban playing a part in the destiny of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides.
The loneliness in a foreign place in Lost in Translation (2003), complemented by the failure of a relationship and comfort found in a stranger (also alone and too nauseous to address any clear feeling). The immaturity of an absent father with an almost nihilist lifestyle in Somewhere (2010) finds a chance to improve as the daughter participates in his routine. The Bling Ring (2013) and the sick obsession for celebrity status culminating in emptiness and jealousy among friends. None of those problems can be exposed easily in a narrative with symmetric turning points and arcs of heroes. Still, many mistake the subtle approach for a shallow approach. They also mistake feminine issues with futility or “girly”, the word used to underestimate our existence. They don’t understand that the feminine and delicate universe will never be explicit. We were taught to repress our feelings, so our battles are internal. And consciously or subconsciously (I don’t know) this is very clear in your filmmaking.
Sofia Coppola’s office by Bruce Weber
Ultimately, all that silkiness and elegance from an universe essentially feminine, is present in Priscilla. Cailee Spaeny embodies a fragile and also extremely tough girl. There is the innocence of walking the school hallway after kissing a rock legend (almost double her age). And there is the wait for marriage, the ghostly female fear of being discarded as the youth and freshness fades away. She deals constantly with the crescent news about his cheating on the tabloids. And, even newly pregnant, Priscilla is asked to leave, after fondly contemplating her baby’s clothing. In my point of view, the biggest abuse from the power dynamic of that couple is not the wardrobe and looks, or even the physical fights. It is the isolation in a home that doesn’t belong to her, with friends who aren’t hers and the infinite wait to have her position as a partner (and autonomous person) validated.
With all the chaotic turbulence, there is also forgiveness, some level of care and a beautiful environment, which all can influence some people to miss the point or invalidate the abuse in that relationship. The balance between charisma and messiness in Jacob Elordi’s performance of Elvis might also seduce people at the time of making a judgment. The seduction is there and should be there, because in real life situations aren’t black or white. If they were, it would be much easier to leave abusive relationships. Elvis was tricky to a whole nation back in the day, just like most male legends. However, there is a larger discussion today about grooming and the stealing of girlhoods all over the world. Priscila got to live her nightmarish dreamlike life. In the same way, Lux Lisbon (The Virgin Suicides), Charlotte (Lost in Translation) and Marie Antoinette did. And, in Sofia’s world a woman’s dreams and nightmares are their own possessions. In fact, this is the only thing no one should ever invade or pour their judgements upon. Thank you, Sofia, for opening space for a subjective world that was not suffocated by anyone’s moral or generic aesthetic standards. Each of your characters are, for good and for bad, their own person.