There’s a video on YouTube, currently sitting at around six million views, that was uploaded by a Céline Dion fan account in 2016. It finds the famed pop diva on stage in Las Vegas, visibly psyching herself up for the vocal calisthenics that define the second half of “All by Myself.” At that point, she’d performed the song hundreds and hundreds of times; what was different about this night was that her husband and former manager, René Angélil, had died just six weeks prior, and it marked her emotional return to performing after the loss.
Dion can’t quite finish the number with her usual, very theatrical brand of gusto, and spends a solid 20 seconds of the clip pinching the bridge of her nose so as not to cry. But it’s all good, since she first makes sure to hit that note, the one that every viewer wonders whether she will in light of the circumstances. It’s an especially moving couple of minutes, the comments littered with people crying alongside the new widow (some who’ve even typed the video into the search bar with that express goal).
Though French actress Valérie Lemercier hasn’t singled out this footage anywhere, there’s no way that she hasn’t seen it, having scoured the internet for Dion content in order to write (with co-writer Brigitte Buc) and direct Aline. The two-hour film, which premiered at Cannes last year and is finally getting a limited theatrical release this week, is an unofficial, unauthorized biopic of Dion, where Lemercier herself stars as Aline Dieu, a French-Canadian superstar who’s Dion in just about every sense but her name. Aline lives out the basic beats of Céline’s story, down to certain Easter eggs that only fans will pick up on (e.g. her fawning over baby portraits by Anne Geddes), and even sings her actual hits (recorded for the film by Victoria Sio).
“I constructed this story while keeping a few respectful feet away to avoid trespassing on someone else’s life,” explains Lemercier, clearly both an admirer and student of her (sort-of) subject, in notes provided to the press. She seems to really get Dion, who played zero role in the film’s making and yet finds her personality—and, far more impressively, her spirit—uncannily represented here. Lemercier plays Aline all the way from childhood to middle age (more on that in a second), embodying everything from Dion’s accent to her mannerisms. But while Aline is ambitious on both a technical and conceptual level, not to mention laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, Lemercier’s desire not to trespass turns the film hagiographic—something that veers into uncomfortable territory given how it uses Dion’s controversial love story with her late husband as its entire framing device.
We open on a 40-something Aline in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death—candles lit and sunglasses on to hide her puffy eyes, surrounded by sleeping children in her clinical Nevada compound. The film then lurches us all the way back to postwar Québec, where Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud) and Anglomard Dieu (Roc LaFortune) marry and begin working on their 14-child brood. Aline is the baby, and, raised in a Trapp Family Singers-like environment, quickly discovered to be its vocal powerhouse.
In an approach that sounds ridiculous but works surprisingly well, Aline has each member of its ensemble play their character at every age, with digital technology and makeup doing additional legwork whenever needed. During an early scene where Aline sings at one of her many sisters’ weddings, for instance, she’s shrunk down to the size of a small child, the camera kept a considerable distance away so that the gimmick doesn’t distract from the intended focal point, AKA the startling voice flowing from this ostensibly shy kid. (Elsewhere, oversized clothing and props help achieve the same effect.)
These tricks aren’t exactly relied upon, however: Lemercier, who’s 58, often disappears into teenage Aline purely by way of her talent as a physical comic—getting across how the young singer is precocious and gangly with bad teeth, though also an otherworldly talent that has the adults around her making big plans. “I’m always playing children in my shows so it seemed perfectly normal, though it might seem a bit bizarre outside France,” Lemercier admitted to the Guardian. But she separately told The New York Times that she was concerned about subjecting a younger actress to the role: “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.”
The Dieus mail a demo tape off to Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), a pushing-40 music executive in Montréal who’s moved to tears hearing the 12-year-old Aline’s voice for the first time. With Guy-Claude as her manager, she spends her teens steadily amassing a loyal fanbase while he more or less molds her in his image, helping her hone her craft and come off as more likable in interviews. In time, he insists on pausing this professional momentum so that she can have her teeth fixed and learn English. “And no more little-girl songs,” he adds in an extended speech to Sylvette, the parent who accompanies Aline on their travels. This dynamic turns Guy-Claude into a sort of de facto father figure: He and Aline have a secret handshake, and he protects her from those who can’t see past her unconventional looks. By the time a horrified Sylvette realizes that something more is happening between what she calls “the old man and the little girl,” it’s too late. Aline claims that it’s Guy-Claude whom she’s imagined herself singing to since day one, and declares that she won’t live without him—nor live a lie.
Lemercier matches the real-life story here, which goes that the couple didn’t act on any of their romantic feelings for each other until Dion was 20; the star writes in 2000’s My Story, My Dream that she told her mother, “I’m not a minor. This is a free country. No one has the right to prevent me from loving whoever I want to.” Ever faithful to its subject, Lemercier takes her at her word and doesn’t ever really interrogate it. Instead, Aline merely makes known Sylvette’s early discomfort and even Guy-Claude’s purported hesitancy regarding the relationship—neither ultimately a match for the headstrong and mature-for-her-age Aline, as the film presents things—and otherwise barrels ahead with its Great Romance.
Relatedly, the film’s Easter eggs extend to its score, where an instrumental portion of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” recurs throughout. It’s a song that Dion has herself covered and is more generally a classic, but the choice also enters Aline into the canon of films that adopt its most famous lyric—“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”—as a logline. Lemercier was originally inspired to make Aline watching Dion publicly navigate Angélil’s death, so the whole forbidden relationship is less a subplot in the film that’s quickly moved past and more the thing structuring the whole narrative arc. Aline and Guy-Claude’s love story is therefore not only presented largely without comment but woven so closely with her rise to global stardom that it’s inescapable. It’s quite the ask to make of viewers in 2022, when the conversation around power imbalances vis-à-vis age gaps has evolved substantially since the couple first went public three decades ago.
Aline is at its best the closer it stays to Québécois homespunnery, with its stellar supporting cast of mostly French-Canadian actors. It loses a bit of steam as it pivots to Aline and Guy-Claude—now spouses—in their permanent move to McMansion Hell, where Aline spends the better half of a decade performing back-to-back Vegas residencies and birthing as many sons as time and IVF allow. There are hiccups, from a vocal-cord injury to malicious journalists and eventually to Guy-Claude’s declining health, but the power of love—the thing that fuels Aline’s voice—triumphs over all.
Lemercier’s film is worth seeing at least once, regardless of your existing familiarity with (or even interest in) Dion. It never lampoons her, but rather taps into the heart of her appeal as a public figure…which, talent aside, just so happens to come back to her kookiness. (It won’t be a coincidence that this is also true of Lemercier.) At the same time, Aline is a treatment of Dion’s story—inclusive of its less savory aspects—that its (unofficial) subject would probably be relieved to hear about; how you feel about the film will likely come down to whether you believe that’s a good thing.
Director: Valérie Lemercier
Writer: Brigitte Buc, Valérie Mercier
Stars:Valérie Lemercier, Roc Lafortune, Danielle Fichaud, Sylvain Marcel
Release Date: April 8, 2022
Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based writer on movies, music videos, and things in between. She wrote her MA thesis on Jonas Åkerlund’s film and music video work. She also writes a newsletter called Mononym Mythology about mostly pop stars and their (visual) antics. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.