I realized I was in for something wonderfully berserk very early on in Aline, the unofficial Celine Dion biopic from writer-director-star Valérie Lemercier, which premiered at Cannes on Tuesday to a combination of bewilderment and delight. Lemercier plays Aline Dieu (French for “Aline God”), foreshadowing the very slight artistic license taken with biographical details here. The movie, which features some of Dion’s songs but not her name, kicks off with a shot of Lemercier as later-in-life Dion, lying in her all-white bed in her all-white bedroom, with her children splayed around her, wearing an all-white outfit, white sunglasses, and white headphones, with a smattering of white votive candles lining the bed. Instantly, and without any explanation, the film speeds back in time to 1932, the year that Aline/Celine’s parents met in Quebec and promptly began popping out their 14 children, culminating with the late-in-life, surprise addition of the supernaturally talented Aline.
Mere seconds later, Aline is 4 or 5 years old, performing at an older sibling’s wedding. At first, we spot her from behind, looking every bit the normal child: normal size, normal hair, normal body proportions. Then, the camera angle changes, and we see Aline from the front. The eye and the brain understand instantly that something is fundamentally wrong. No longer are we looking at the face and body of a child. We are looking at the face and body of a 57-year-old woman, shrunk down to the size of a child. Thunderstruck and thrown deep into the chasms of the Uncanny Valley, I struggled to accept what was happening. I thought briefly of the Ukrainian orphan who maybe was actually a 40-year old woman, and wondered if she had also been an inspiration to Lemercier. Ultimately, I accepted the gonzo choice as one that could only have been made by a true Celine Dion fan.
Aline works because it vibrates on the very same frequency as Celine Dion herself, who is, famously, a genuine weirdo: kooky, a little awkward, deeply earnest, unabashedly emotional, unafraid to do something freaky in the name of art. Although Celine Dion had nothing to do with this project, her zany energy is all the fuck over it. Watching Lemercier, I laughed, I cried, I rooted for
Celine Aline as she got a makeover and attempted to seduce an old man. Considering we’ve got some time (perhaps, eternity) before Aline reaches the States, I’ve outlined the more important aspects of the film in hopes of communicating my casually transcendent experience with it.
Wait, so, this is a movie about Celine Dion but she wasn’t involved at all? Is she mad about it, or … ?
The movie is billed as a “freely inspired fiction” based on Dion’s life. Celine Dion has not commented on the film, but if she did, I bet she would laugh maniacally and say, “Shall we go for it?”
Who is Valérie Lemercier and why did she make this movie?
I was unfamiliar with the work of Lemercier before my transformative experience with Aline, but in the hours since, I’ve learned that she is a singer, writer, director, and actress with a blind, sort of mad confidence that I find inspiring. She’s previously given this sort of unofficial-biopic treatment to Princess Diana. She also made a strange movie wherein she plays a racist white woman who develops some kind of skin condition that turns her Black (?), which sounds potentially problematique in the exact way that privileged French people tend to grapple with race.
Is she actually singing in Aline?
No, Aline’s voice is dubbed by soprano Victoria Sio, who does an uncanny Celine Dion, albeit with slightly fewer vocal riffs and devoid of the gentle insanity that pervades Celine’s work. But Lemercier does an incredible physical Celine Dion impression, particularly when she reenacts her signature goofy facial expressions and dance moves.
Did the movie get the rights to Celine’s actual songs?
Most of the songs in the movie are Celine’s famous covers: “River Deep, Mountain High,” “What a Wonderful World,” and “Nature Boy,” among others. There’s a lot of her French stuff in here, as well. But most impressively, the movie manages to get the rights to “My Heart Will Go On,” and re-creates Celine’s famous Oscar performance of the song. Somehow, they still had the budget to also re-create her massive Floridian villa.
So is this whole thing played straight? I’m still confused.
Yes, me too. The answer is complicated. Celine Dion is a camp figure in and of herself, and Lemercier seems to understand that well. However, there is also a deep earnestness to the proceedings — everyone involved is taking the film very seriously, albeit with an undeniable undercurrent of goofiness. There are a few winks at the audience — for example, when she first meets her much-older manager, Guy-Claude (a stand-in for Celine’s real-life manager and eventual husband, René Angélil), he calls her “Celine.” Her mom corrects him: “No, it’s Aline.” There’s also an incredibly funny sequence where she gets lost in her villa on the way back from the pool.
How does the movie handle the fact that Celine/Aline and René/Guy-Claude met when she was 12 and he was in his 30s, and then went on to get married a little more than a decade later?
The movie sells this relationship so hard that, by the end, I was utterly despondent when Aline and Guy-Claude were parted by the cold hands of death. Oddly, it helps that Aline has the face of a 57-year-old when they first meet, and that Guy-Claude (Sylvain Marcel) demonstrates zero sexual interest in her until she practically throws herself at him when she turns 20. It also helps that Aline’s mother (a scene-stealing, Olympia Dukakis-in-Moonstruck-esque Danielle Fichaud) is furious about the whole thing for years, threatening to fire Guy-Claude, calling him a “fat old prune,” and weeping audibly when the two consummate their relationship.
Anyway, the whole thing is odd at first, but Aline does a great job of portraying the pair as gentle French-Canadian soul mates who have each other’s best interests at heart and, more importantly, are both weirdos. For example, at one point, Aline tells Guy-Claude she’s pregnant after years of infertility struggles by writing “BB” into his carrot soup with her finger. Both of them find this normal.
Do we get to see Celine’s wacky wedding dress and gigantic Swarovski crystal headpiece?
Yes, we do.
How deep does the movie get into her career?
The film’s primary focus, sometimes to its detriment, is Aline’s relationship with Guy-Claude: its strange beginnings, its happy middle, its tragic end. But we do get to see some of Celine’s most memorable moments re-created, like her Caesar’s Palace residency, her Oscars performance, her weepy TV interview where she nearly admits to her controversial relationship with René, her meeting and eventual deep attachment to her gay makeup artist/stylist who accompanies her everywhere, and the period during which she was not allowed to speak due to damaged vocal chords.
It also delves into her complicated relationship with fame: Ultimately, Celine/Aline is a family girl who’s obsessed with her parents and her babies, and finds life on the road/at Caesar’s Palace exhausting. By the end of the film, she’s telling René/Guy-Claude’s ghost that she’s exhausted and needs a break from it all.
What does Aline eat?
I’m glad you asked this specific question, because the movie spends a lot of time fixated on Aline’s lust for food. We see her dip a croissant in Champagne at breakfast. We see her go to absolute town on a cheeseburger and fries. She waxes poetic about her love for chocolate to a doctor who tells her she can’t have it anymore, because it’s bad for her voice. This is all played in contrast to Guy-Claude, who must eat the aforementioned carrot soup because he has health problems. (She nonetheless eats that cheeseburger right next to him.)
Outside of the shrunken child and the carrot-soup situation, what’s the uncanniest part?
This is a tough one. The whole movie feels like a dream you might have after being put under at the dentist. There’s a scene where Guy-Claude proposes to Aline by placing a massive diamond ring in her ice cream, which seems like a serious choking hazard. There’s a scene where Aline, who admits to her makeup artist that she has never stepped foot on the streets of Vegas in 14 years, misses a residency show and wanders the city, sitting on benches and staring at billboards of herself, with Elvis impersonators assuming that she is an Aline Dieu impersonator. There is a makeover montage where she turns from an awkward 12-year-old with bad teeth to a shorter-haired seductress thanks to massive dental work and one workout class.
When can I see this masterpiece?
The film has French and Canadian release dates in the fall, but it doesn’t yet have a US distributor. We can all agree that this needs to be corrected immediately. What is Netflix even good for, if not this?
Do you feel slightly different now, having seen this film? Perhaps forever altered on a cellular level?
Oui, I do.
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