Arts

A Filmmaker’s Journey to the Center of Celine Dion

Valérie Lemercier’s new film is about an endearingly quirky, mega-famous Canadian belter. Her hits include “My Heart Will Go On” and “The Power of Love.” She was happily married to her much older manager.

No, not Celine Dion, but Aline Dieu.

“Aline,” which Lemercier directed and stars in, is kooky and heartfelt, loving and wonderfully bonkers — not unlike the superstar who inspired it in all but name. The movie scrupulously incorporates the major themes present in most traditional biopics — family, love, struggle, art — while slyly tweaking them. And a decisive step was switching from Celine to Aline.

“I started with the real names,” Lemercier said in a video call from Paris in December. “But Brigitte Buc, my co-writer, told me, ‘Change them, it’ll be simpler.’ And it was true: It became easier, we could make up things.”

Ahead of its American release on April 8, “Aline” has already earned accolades. The multihyphenate Lemercier, one of France’s most idiosyncratic artists for more than three decades, won the César Award for best actress in February; the movie, her sixth behind the camera, earned 10 nominations. “Artists publicly recommended the film, and that’s not common in France,” Lemercier said. “I got a lot of supportive messages from directors, as if they were saying I had earned the right to be in their club.”

While the film starts with a disclaimer that it is “a work of fiction,” it uses Dion music (Lemercier lip-syncs excerpts from the Dion songbook performed by Victoria Sio) and is largely faithful to her story arc, from childhood in a hardscrabble Quebecois family to international stardom and, most importantly, to her passionate relationship with René Angélil, the music manager who discovered her when she was 12 and he was 38, and became her husband 14 years later.

Still, “Aline” reflects distinct aesthetic and narrative choices, so much so that after the film’s presentation at the 2021 Cannes festival, Kyle Buchanan of The New York Times wrote that “it steers into its eccentricities so hard that it somehow boomerangs back into auteurism.”
Among the many flourishes was the decision by Lemercier, 58, to play Aline at every stage in her life — including as a 5-year-old, with a little C.G.I. and forced-perspective tricks. This would not have surprised audiences in France, where “Aline” came out in November, because Lemercier, known for her biting comic style, has long portrayed children in TV sketches and in her one-woman performances; in one of her signatures sketches, she plays a twitchy contestant on a kids’ talent show. “Little girls, more than little boys, fascinate me — what they say, what they imagine, what goes on in their mind,” Lemercier said.

“Aline” makes ample use of Celine Dion’s songbook, with Lemercier lip-syncing to the hits.Credit…Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

But her choice to tackle young Celine herself was a moral, as well as artistic, one. Lemercier, as an adult, felt she was better equipped to handle potentially sensitive scenes, such as when the young Aline visits a dentist.

“I’m often asked why I played her as a child, and I often say I’m like a lawyer defending her client: I’m not going to send out my assistant to handle the beginning, when it’s tough,” she said. “I don’t want to send out a kid to the dentist so she can open her mouth wide to display her crooked teeth. I heard unpleasant comments about my appearance when I was a child, so I wanted to be the one on the receiving end in the movie. I didn’t want to just play the sexy, glamorous woman we see at the end.”

There are hints of autobiography throughout the film, particularly in young Aline’s drive to perform. Lemercier grew up in a farming family with three sisters and learned quickly that her clowning around could lighten her depressed mother’s mood. “When I made people laugh at a young age, even younger than five, I immediately felt that I existed, that I had a purpose, that I would not be useless,” Lemercier said. “For me, it’s the pleasure of making people laugh, and for her, it’s the pleasure of singing.”

Born in Normandy, Lemercier moved to Paris at 18, and her career took off in the late 1980s thanks to cameos in the sketch series “Palace.” Her commercial breakthrough came in 1993 with the blockbuster “The Visitors,” which earned her a César for best supporting actress, and she made her feature debut as a director in 1997 with “Quadrille,” an archly stylish, beautifully art-directed adaptation of a Sacha Guitry play.

It was through one of her solo outings, in the mid-1990s, that she was converted to the church of Celine. “I was doing a show at the Théâtre de Paris, and an usher, who was a Celine fan, sang me her songs,” Lemercier recalled. She decided to make a film about the star after spotting her at the funeral for Angélil, who died in 2016. “He wasn’t there anymore, and I wondered how she would cope. It touched me.”

For French viewers, the film’s affectionate tone scrambled their notions of Lemercier and her style. Her humor can be quite dark, especially at the theater, and she gleefully exploits the jarring discrepancy between her elegant, poised appearance — she looked impeccably put together in our video chat — and crude, often scatological jokes. Her satirical barbs have not spared peers like Juliette Binoche, who was once the target of a biting fake commercial.

“Everybody assumed I was going to make a parody, but that was never my plan,” Lemercier said of “Aline.” “I’m not much for tenderness; it really bugs me, generally speaking, and I tend to go more for sarcasm. But this time around — no,” she continued. “I wanted to be sincere, to do an open love letter.” (Some of Dion’s siblings have criticized the film for, among other things, what they felt was a cartoonish portrayal of their family.Early in the process, Lemercier passed on her script to Dion’s French manager, whom she said approved of the tone; a spokesperson stated in an email that “Celine has not seen the movie, nor does she have any comments about it.”)

“There is no condescension, no snobbery in the film,” the musician Bertrand Burgalat, who produced Lemercier’s album, “Chante” (1996), and scored two of her movies, said by email. “She does not treat Celine Dion as a pop object, either, like Jeff Koons did with Cicciolina,” he added, referring to the provocateur artist’s relationship with his former wife and muse.

If there were emotions in need of some untangling, they came more from Lemercier’s conflicted relationship with Quebec, where her first live appearance, in 1990, had turned into a debacle. “Air Canada had purchased all the seats for its employees, who thought they were going to see Claudine Mercier, a Quebecois imitator,” she said. “Everybody got up and left, and I ended the show in front of an empty room. I cried all night. I was wounded. So this movie was a way to return to Quebec with my head held high. Or at least to be better understood there.”

Capturing the Quebecois culture was key to Lemercier, who extensively researched the province’s culture and mores and insisted on local casting. “I demanded — and it was not easy — Quebecois actors who are unknown in France,” she said. “I fought one of the film’s backers, who did not want to hear of them.” Among those actors was Sylvain Marcel, who played the Angélil character (renamed Guy-Claude Kamar) and thus had to help sell the romance between the singer and a man nearly 30 years her senior.

“It’s very delicate, because the story revolves around their love,” the Quebecois journalist Denise Bombardier, who once shadowed Dion on tour for a 2009 book, said on the phone.

For Marcel, who comes from the same Montreal suburb as Dion, everything flowed from a relatively straightforward motivation. “For me the idea was, ‘You love her, it’s crazy how much you love her,’ ” he said in a video conversation. “And that’s based on what René experienced with her.”

The film does take liberties with some details of Dion’s life, but only to find a way into a psyche that, after almost 35 years in the limelight, remains somewhat opaque. “It’s about creating a Celine flavor, a flavor called Aline,” Lemercier said.

The most prominent flight of fancy is an extended scene in which Aline walks the streets of Las Vegas, alone and forlorn. And yet for Bombardier, it reaches a greater truth. “It’s probably the most realistic scene in the entire movie,” she said. “She’s locked into her fame — it’s a loneliness we can’t comprehend. There’s a tragic dimension to this type of person, and that’s why I bow down to how perceptive this invented scene is.”

Marcel goes even further: “It’s not a biopic, it’s a metaphor about a life that’s extraordinary but also nightmarish sometimes.”

For Lemercier, that dark side is part of the equation, but only part. “I don’t talk about it, but when she plays golf for the first time, the balls get in the hole — she’s just a beginner, but it works,” she said. “It’s pleasant to play someone whose dreams come true.”

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