The Girlfriend Experience: Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023)

A girlfriend, baby, that's something that I understand.

The Girlfriend Experience: Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023)

In the past twenty years of going to the movies, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola grow up. She’s about ten years older than me, or so I optimistically imagine; just old enough that she always provides a model for the stage of life I’m about to enter. I’ve seen her go through her next-big-thing phase (The Virgin Suicides) and I’ve seen her establish herself as someone who would be around for a while (Lost in Translation) and I’ve been around for the backlash, the cries of nepotism and vapidity and privilege and commodity fetishism and and and. I remember when Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes and everyone thought Sofia Coppola was done.

If you can look at the big historical costume dramas of the past ten years — The Favorite, The Great, Apple TV’s Dickinson series, even (yikes) Hamilton — and not be reminded of Marie Antoinette, more power to you. As far as I can see, though, Sofia Coppola won that round.

So I am done underestimating Sofia Coppola. Hopefully we all are. Still, I don’t love every single one of her movies. Some really do seem more like glossy magazine ad campaigns than stories; all the details and brands and outfits are on point, but they’re presented like museum exhibits, under glass, so that the story and characters have no room to breathe. These aren’t devastating criticisms — they’re the same criticisms I have of Wes Anderson, who came up around the same time as she did, as part of the same Gen X milieu — but just as I go on and off Anderson, I can sometimes see a Coppola film without being moved. 

Priscilla moved me. It shook me; it left me re-evaluating some of the relationships in my own life. Priscilla is the movie where the adult Sofia Coppola — the grown woman, with a name and a career and a legacy and a teenage daughter who sometimes gets grounded for trying to use her parents’ credit cards to charter helicopters — revisits Marie Antoinette, and tells us how it looks to her now. 

Like Marie Antoinette, it’s a biopic; like Marie Antoinette, it’s the story of a teenage girl entering a world of power and glamour where she is meant to serve a purely decorative role. But one thing Sofia Coppola can see now — that I see now, that you can’t really see when you’re in your twenties  and your adolescence happened yesterday — is that a teenager is just a kid with a driver’s license. Glamour does not equate to power, and dressing up might make you an icon, but it can’t give you the ability to make adult decisions. Priscilla seems to come directly from the realization that we all (hopefully) (eventually) have about our worst memories: The person all this happened to was just so young.

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