Céline Dion was an omnipresent force throughout my Canadian millennial youth. With the radio in my parent’s car forever fixed to 97.3 EZ Rock, not a day would go by that I didn’t hear a Dion jam on the way to or from school (or sometimes, both). Frequently, that jam would be “My Heart Will Go On”, a momentous weeper of a track that burrowed its way into a permanent home in our ears when Titanic became the biggest pop cultural event in recorded history. It was a song that crossed all boundaries of individual music taste and even today, when it re-emerges over the speaker system at the grocery store or the drug mart, you can’t help but hum along in your head. In some ways, Céline Dion became a part of all of us.
One person who clearly feels some kind of special connection with the pop icon is Valérie Lemercier, the French multihyphenate behind Aline: The Voice of Love, the first Dion biopic to hit the big screen. In addition to writing and directing, Lemercier also plays the central figure who is… actually not named Céline Dion at all, but rather Aline Dieu. That’s because this is an unauthorized depiction of its subject’s life, or as the film’s tagline states “a fiction freely inspired by the life of Céline Dion.” Now it’s obviously not uncommon for cinematic biopics to stretch the truth, but Aline really wants us to be aware of that fact, telling us via title card at the beginning that the real-life events in question have been “modified for the director’s vision”. And, wow, what an offbeat vision this is.
It’s not that Aline is conceptually offbeat in a way that fanciful biopics like, say, Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There or Michael Almereyda’s Tesla or any of Pablo Larraín’s “true fables” are considered offbeat. On the contrary, Lemercier’s film is a narratively straight-forward re-telling of Dion’s life, from her early days as the youngest of 14 children growing up in rural Quebec to her teenage discovery and rapid rise as a chart-topping Francophone artist, through to her marriage and family life with husband/manager René Angélil (here named Guy-Claude Kamar and played by Sylvain Marcel) and culminating in her eventual pop cultural domination and extremely profitable Las Vegas residency. For better or for worse, Aline looks and feels on the surface like an average Lifetime movie treatment (and as someone who greatly enjoys Lifetime movies, I say for better).
Even though the film is determined to remain more-or-less on the same historical timeline as Céline Dion’s life, Lemercier is adamant in cheekily pointing out that no, this is ALINE DIEU you’re watching. When Aline first goes in to audition as a teen for Guy-Claude, he even accidentally calls her Céline when they meet; to which Aline’s mother, Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud), replies, “no, it’s ALINE,” practically winking at the audience as she does. Apparently, Lemercier said that her co-writer, Brigitte Buc, came up with the idea to use a different name so that they could have the freedom to invent new scenes. These consist of sequences like an innocuous early gag where Aline’s parents pick her up so quickly from the skating rink to drive to her fateful audition that she leaves her shoes behind and arrives in the city with nothing but skates on her feet.
But in case you get confused about who this is all primarily based on, Lemercier goes on to stage an endless amount of concert scenes where Aline sings Céline Dion’s actual songs, all of which have been re-recorded as identical sounding covers by French singer Victoria Sio. Wait, now I’m even more confused.
Then, of course, we need to talk about the performance that anchors Aline. Much has already been made about the decision for Lemercier, a 57-year-old woman, to play Aline from the age of, ahem, 12 all the way to the present day, which critics gleefully lambasted after the film’s screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a bizarre move, to say the least, and the earliest sequences of Aline’s pre-teen years are undoubtedly the most jarring, achieved through what looks like a mixture of forced perspective trickery and a body double who is, you know, actually a child. The outright nightmare fuel freakishness of this conceit slightly lessens as she wades into her older teen years, with Lemercier leaning on youthful costuming to try and sell the illusion. But still, without the use of any snazzy digital de-aging (which probably would have resulted in something scarier, to be honest), it’s impossible to avoid the fact that Lemercier’s face is… clearly not the face of a young person.
At times, however, the film hints at there being a consciously thematic reason for this wacky performance choice. Lemercier frequently seems to suggest that Dion’s prodigious talent and “ugly duckling” looks (a joked-about detail that is, frankly, kind of mean) during her adolescence made her appear older than her years, while she was still fundamentally a juvenile inside. Lemercier then continues to put on Aline’s childlike behaviour as she reaches adulthood (essentially pulling a Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30), particularly in illustrating her romantic relationship with Guy-Claude, who is 26 years her senior. It’s possible that Lemercier wants to make some kind of commentary on the troubling aspects of this age imbalance, significantly amping up Aline’s immaturity during their early courtship and letting the very legitimate concerns of her mother be explicitly heard. But then when it comes time for the two lovers to throw caution to the wind and consummate their relationship, it’s played in a sincerely romantic manner, without any sort of underlying recognition as to how utterly nauseating this saccharine post-concert hotel room tryst comes off.
So is all of this just for laughs? That’s certainly the likeliest scenario, as Lemercier is well known in France as a purveyor of broad mainstream comedies – and her last directorial effort, Marie-Francine, where she played a 50-year-old woman who moves back in with her parents, played with farcical age-related humour as well. There’s no question that there are some hearty laughs to be had here. The extraordinarily over-the-top scene of Guy-Claude’s proposal to Aline, where he hides the ring within an ice cream cone that she’s pleading for him to give her (again, like a child) is unquestionably one of the funniest cinematic moments of the year. But then just when things threaten to get too outlandish, Lemercier often takes hard lefts into more dramatic territory, especially in the film’s later stages amidst Guy-Claude’s worsening health and Aline’s increased disillusionment with fame.
In the end, it’s tough to determine what exactly to make of Aline: The Voice of Love. Is Lemercier actually a fan of Dion or is she simply mocking her? Hard to say. But in a strange way, that’s ultimately what becomes so galvanizing about this bizarre experience. I wish more biopics shed their bland Oscar-bait trappings for this level of moment-to-moment confusion over their authorial intent. And it’s quite possible that Lemercier has created a new camp classic here, something to be celebrated with enthusiastic repertory screenings in the years to come.
The final scene of Aline: The Voice of Love at least signalled to me that Lemercier’s heart isn’t totally in the wrong place in paying tribute its principal superstar. As Aline takes the stage one more time to perform Dion’s classic banger “I’m Alive” with the weight of all her experiences held firmly and evocatively in her voice (well, the voice of Victoria Sio, that is), for a brief moment, it becomes a genuinely moving culmination of a life that continues to shine brighter than anyone could have imagined.
- Release Date: 2/18/2022