‘Aline’ Presents Celine Dion Through the Looking Glass

In an interview, the biopic's director/writer/star Valérie Lemercier talks adapting Dion's life: “I wanted to make something with my heart."

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‘Aline’ Presents Celine Dion Through the Looking Glass
Image:Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

You have heard that Aline is weird, and it is. Billed right on its poster as “a fiction freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion,” it’s a platform for the talents of French star Valérie Lemercier, who co-wrote and directed, and also stars as the pop singer Aline Dieu. At least part of what critics are responding to when they use words like “strange,” “oddity,” and “bizarre” in their reviews of the film (“Even now, I still can’t believe I have seen it,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in his pan.) is a result of one of the most widely publicized aspects of the film: Lemercier plays Aline at every stage in her life, from toddler to middle age. In a Zoom conversation last month, Lemercier described to Jezebel a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor in which she played baby Aline “at six months old in a drawer with one tooth.”

“My producer cut it,” she explained. “But it was most bizarre at first.”

Lemercier acknowledged the weirdness of her film only sporadically, which seems right. As strange as it is to see Lemercier, who was 55 when she shot Aline, play a small child and teenager, the movie is steeped in the classic tenets of the biopic form. It compresses a life—not Dion’s life, but one that shares several of its beats—into two hours, sprinting from the rags of a life among 13 siblings in Quebec to the riches of international pop stardom. Aline leans heavily on melodrama, sometimes with a knowing wink (Glenn Medeiros’s adult contemporary treacle “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” blares as Aline unveils her new haircut in a slow-motion sequence), sometimes with an entirely straight face (strings weep along to a young-adult Aline’s pining for love). With Aline, Lemercier may have devised the most unconventional way to uphold convention.

To hear Lemercier tell it, it was all quite logical. She said that her French audience is used to seeing her play a little girl, something she’s done on television and in comedy shows. She’s loved Dion since her first hit in France, “D’amour ou d’amitié,” which Dion released in 1982, when Lemercier was 14. (“She had a strange face, strange teeth…everything was strange!” said Lemercier of Dion’s early days.) The genesis of her idea for a biopic-not-biopic of Dion dates back to the press cycle of Lemercier’s previous film, 2017’s Marie-Francine, during which she joked with an interviewer that her next project would be a movie about Dion. Afterward, her production designer Emmanuelle Duplay urged her to pursue the project and the joke turned serious.

“I wanted to make something with my heart,” said Lemercier, putting it in an extremely Dion-esque way. She said that the character Aline is “between Celine and me,” explaining that she could relate to certain features of Dion’s life on a smaller scale.

“I spend a lot of time onstage and I want to speak about the artist life and the loneliness you feel,” she said. “I’ve spent 33 years onstage and I’m still playing on stage. You have to give everything: your body, you have to take care of your voice, you have to take care of everything.”

When asked whether making a movie about a Dion-like character, as opposed to Dion proper, had to do with life rights and/or legal logistics, Lemercier said, “Not at all.” She explained that she, alongside her co-screenwriter Brigitte Buc, decided together that changing the name would make things easier in general for them. “If you change the name you are not obliged to say exactly,” she said. With artistic license, she was able to play with chronology, combine certain aspects of Dion’s life, and invent entirely new scenes (Aline’s manager Guy-Claude proposes to her by hiding an engagement ring in a cone of gelato on the streets of Naples; Dion’s ring arrived in a box given to her by René Angélil in a hotel room, according to the singer).

Image:Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Lemercier’s movie deviates from the official story until it doesn’t. The portrayal of Aline’s romance with her manager, Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), is entirely wholesome. Here is how this romance between a man who was 26 years Dion’s senior and met her at age 12 unfurled totally ethically, is what the movie seems to be saying. Aline is portrayed as the relationship’s galvanizing force—it progresses from business to pleasure, at her insistence. Most of the conflict in the movie’s first half occurs between Aline and her mother Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud), who disapproves of her relationship with Guy-Claude. Dion has maintained that no romance occurred between her and Angélil until she was 20, and she did not go public with the relationship until she was 25, via the liner notes of her third English-language album, The Colour of My Love (“Rene, for so many years, I kept our special dream locked away inside my heart. But now, it’s getting too powerful to keep this inside of me”). “Twenty years old, a kiss good night was different suddenly,” Dion said of her relationship’s development on Intimate Portrait in 1996. “I can’t explain it—it’s just that when we left each other every night it was harder,” said Angélil on the same special. To PEOPLE in 1994, Dion said, “The hugs just became better, and his kisses moved across my cheek.”

Still, rumors swirled in the early ‘90s that Dion was underage when she became romantically involved with Angélil. In 1994, the couple sued Montreal-based tabloid Photo Police for $14 million for printing, among things: “Their romance began when Celine was still 15; at 16, when she was still a minor, she decided to live with him.” In 2002, according to The Vancouver Province, the case was “still winding its way through the system.” (I couldn’t find any reports on its eventual outcome.)

So, what made Lemercier so sure that she was telling the right story there? “Because they said that!” she said. “Celine and Rene say that and I said that. The movie does not to try to find something they try to hide. I just wanted to to show that wonderful love story. I never judge her.” Lemercier said her research consisted of interviews and a trio of books by the same author respectively focused on Dion, Angélil, and Dion’s mother Thérèse Dion (she was likely referring to the work of Georges-Hebert Germain, who wrote three such books). Aline is filled with Dion’s music, which Lemercier licensed via the composers (Dion does not write her own songs) and is sung by Dion soundalike Victoria Sio. The playlist heavily features Dion’s French-language classics. A particularly poignant scene depicts Aline struggling through the climax of “All By Myself” in front of an audience, only to run off stage and then be beckoned back by the crowd’s acapella sing along of Dion’s signature French song “Pour que tu m’aimes encoure.” Lemercier said she was able to get the rights of every song she wanted for the film with the exception of “The Power of Love.” Composer and original performer Jennifer Rush refused. “I was very surprised to have rights for Titanic [‘My Heart Will Go On’],” said Lemercier. “I was not sure [we’d get] that.”

Like Dion herself, Aline deftly navigates between the schmaltzy and the goofy. It could have been mortifying in its earnestness, were it not for its palpable, ultimately endearing conviction. It’s built on the broadest of strokes that Lemercier fills in with affective nuance, much like Dion does in her music with vocal runs. Its technical achievement is not at the cost of its soul, but bolstered by it.

“She is always turning everything into a show,” said Lemercier in allegiance to Dion. “It’s my job to make people laugh. She’s always trying to make fun, to be funny, to be a clown. It’s a mix of that, and she’s very sincere.”

Image:Jean-Marie Leroy/Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Lemercier’s evident heart, though, hasn’t won over Dion. Dion, according to Lemercier, had not seen the movie at the time of our interview. (A spokesperson told the New York Times, “Celine has not seen the movie, nor does she have any comments about it.”) Dion has shown some sense of humor in this particular department previously, having in the ‘90s shared the stage with SNL’s Ana Gasteyer, who famously satirized the singer. (On that collaboration, Dion said in her Behind the Music: “I have enough of a sense of humor to know what it’s trying to do. And it’s okay because at one point you say to yourself, ‘If they’re doing that you must have done something right.’”) Dion’s French manager reportedly approved of the tone of Lemercier’s script, though members of Dion’s family have criticized the movie’s portrayal of their meager beginnings. Regarding Dion’s avoidance of Aline, Lemercier is characteristically empathetic.

“If I were Celine, maybe I would not watch,” she said. “I know that she doesn’t like to see something about herself. She doesn’t like to see what people are writing. She needs to stay away from all that because she has to live.”

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