I once made the mistake of starting an interview with a famous actor by saying that it must have been a dream come true to have gotten a chance to play a glamorous lounge singer. It wasn’t a question, just an attempt at an icebreaker before we launched into the warped simulacrum of a conversation that is a press-day Q&A. It had never occurred to me, until the actor responded with an excruciating stretch of chilly silence and a flat “okay?”, that there were people out there, actual professional performers, who had never fantasized about playing some kind of diva. It’s the next best thing to actually being one — maybe even better, given how often the lives of divas are marked by tragedy, which onscreen just translates to rich material. Can’t sing? Stand in the spotlight doing all the grand emoting and let the sound department and the magic of movies provide the voice. To be immune to the appeal of this kind of role requires either profound self-knowledge or a dire lack of imagination, and either way involves missing out on something.
Valérie Lemercier, the director, co-writer, and star of Aline, is not immune. She is clearly a woman who’s put a lot of time into imagining herself playing a diva onscreen — specifically, Quebecois icon Céline Dion, whose life serves as the unsanctioned source material for the film and whose music features in it significantly. But where most people leave off, Lemercier kept going, somehow manifesting this fantasy into a full-length motion picture in one of the most astounding feats of creative willpower I’ve ever seen. Lemercier is a 58-year-old French woman who does not look remotely like Dion and does not have her pipes, either — vocalist Victoria Sio provides the actual covers of hits like “Pour que tu m’aimes encore” and “Let’s Talk About Love.” But she nevertheless plays Dion — excuse me, Aline Dieu, as she’s called onscreen — from the age of 6 through her late 40s. Lemercier’s known for her work as a comedian in her native France and not really known in the U.S. at all, and while watching Aline creates an ear-popping sense of cultural disconnect, the film doesn’t seem intended to be received as a lampoon. But it’s not not a comedy, either, with plenty of scenes that are meant to be read as absurd. More than anything, Aline feels like a kamikaze act of wish fulfillment, wildly indulgent but so deeply committed to what it’s doing that it can’t help but be compelling.
Regardless of its intentions, Aline also feels like a commentary on the frequent ridiculousness of the prestige biopic, that po-faced genre we spend half the year talking about in the context of awards. Somehow, when the Oscars roll around, everyone still seems to agree that the height of acting involves doing a mannered impression of a historical figure, especially if it involves an accent or a lot of wig and prosthetic work. The first time Lemercier appears onscreen in the movie after an opening flash-forward, she’s been digitally scaled down to play Aline as a child, her shrunken hands coming over the edge of the stage on which her family is performing before her reduced head emerges into view. It’s a hauntingly unsettling sight, though I’m not sure it’s really that much more alien than whatever they did to Nicole Kidman’s face for Being the Ricardos. Lemercier does not look at all like a 6-year-old, but then again, Kidman didn’t really resemble Lucille Ball — she just looked like Nicole Kidman with something odd going on around her brow and the bridge of her nose.
As an uncannily smoothed-down Lemercier mugs her way through Aline’s childhood as the youngest of over a dozen siblings, her signing with manager Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel) at the age of 12, and her ascent from awkward provincial performer to international celebrity, the film highlights the absurdity of compressing someone’s life into a series of big moments in the shape of a narrative arc. Aline, to the distress of her mother, Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud), falls in love with the much older Guy-Claude, and around the age of 20, she finally persuades him to be with and eventually marry her. He frets over the fact that he’s going to die and leave her alone someday, asking her to promise to keep at the career they’ve been building together. They have trouble conceiving but then finally have a son. She does talk shows, tours the world, and acquires a gay best friend. Guy-Claude goes on a diet. Aline weeps over having to leave her child to go to work. She does a residency in Vegas, tours the world, and has twins. Eventually, Guy-Claude’s liver-spotted hand goes limp in Aline’s, but after a bout of mourning and soul-searching, she comes back to perform — the show must go on, after all, it’s what he wanted.
If it were even possible for Lemercier to disappear into the role of Aline, it’s not something she attempts. She instead is more prone to making faces and flinging herself enthusiastically into the motions of singing onstage, clearly most interested in the idea of Dion as a polished star who nevertheless retains traces of the gawky local girl she used to be. Hers is not always a terribly flattering portrayal — Aline’s family, zestfully accented and overflowing the house, comes close to caricature — but it’s deeply affectionate. I don’t know that I would call Aline an especially good movie, but it’s indisputably a sui generis creation. This largely earnest effort fits alongside the overtly satirical Walk Hard with the truths it displays about its genre — which is that, despite the pretenses of importance, the biopic is more often than not an excuse for playacting. And it’s possible that no one has ever playacted on a grander scale than Lemercier does here.
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