‘Aline’ doesn’t really do justice to Celine Dion’s weird legacy
I never really appreciated Celine Dion until a French friend sold me on her appeal: She’s an unapologetic weirdo. For every treacly, chart-topping ballad, there’s a clip of the French-Canadian megastar making a goofy face or blurting something out or dancing like she’s, well, never danced before. Most divas don’t take themselves this un-seriously, and I’m very here for it.
The quasi-biopic ‘Aline’, which purports to be “freely inspired” by the life of Dion, seemed like a promising homage and an education for those of us who aren’t well-versed. There is certainly no question that they made it with good intentions and starry-eyed love (exhibit A: the title character’s last name, “Dieu,” translates to “God.”). Director-star Valerie Lemercier, a French comedian, adeptly channels Dion’s physicality and quirkiness, lipsynching to singer Victoria Sio’s Dion renditions. Yet despite the trailer looking like a piece of freewheeling camp that should be a perfect counterpart to the real thing, ‘Aline’ misses so many opportunities to be really worthy of its gloriously loopy subject.
The movie’s first third, at least, embraces a sort of surreality. In the beginning scenes, you may find yourself wondering, What the hell is up with young Aline? Well, it’s this: Lemercier always plays her, even as a six-year-old child, shrinking her body in post-production but keeping her adult face basically the same. (Apparently, she even wanted to play Aline as a baby, but “my producer asked me to cut it,” she told NBC.) It’s one of the oddest things about this movie. I wish there were more!
In the movie, as in Dion’s life, Aline’s the youngest of 14 siblings in a kind of scrappier, Canadian Von Trapp family, or maybe the Partridges: They all play music, and perform at local events, until the five-year-old Aline sings at a wedding and blows everyone away. When she’s 12, her older brother sends a recording to music manager Guy-Claude (Sylvain Marcel), and soon thereafter she’s appearing on TV and touring sold-out Canadian theater dates.
There’s a fun (but kinda cringey!) montage of the teen Dion pining for Guy-Claude, 26 years her senior, while she’s on a lengthy break. She gets her bad teeth straightened and her hair styled, and when he shows up again, she opens the door to him accompanied by a cartoonish twinkle, a wind machine and an ’80s power ballad.
Still, it’s an odd choice that, for a portrayal of a wildly successful female solo artist, Lemercier focuses so relentlessly on her character’s romance with her manager (in real life, this is the late Rene Angelil). By making herself the face of the underage Aline, the director neatly sidesteps the potentially icky, more realistic spectacle of having a tween actor doing it. Since she’s the same person the whole way through, it makes the pairing a lot more palatable. And at its core, Aline really is a celebration of Dion and Angelil’s relationship.
Lemercier being a superfan does help her tap into the star’s movement, and her tendency to awkwardly vamp. (“Weird face, no grace,” one backstage hand comments to another, unkindly, early in the movie.) One of the most unique things about Dion is how she leans into that gawkiness, instead of having generic pop stardom groom it out of her. Lemercier does a great job of playing this. At one point, as a cancer-stricken Guy-Claude is watching her from his hospital bed, he speaks into her earpiece: “Do Bugs Bunny,” he says, and she segues into doing bunny ears while playing to a full house in Vegas. It’s totally plausible. There’s also an amusing bit where Aline gets lost in her own house–xa tip of the hat, I guess, to the Canadian media’s ongoing coverage of her insane wealth.
‘Aline ‘veers into, presumably, straight fiction in its final chapter, as the heartbroken singer embarks on a walk around Vegas, her very first time out amongst the plebes since she was a child star. Elvis impersonators critique her for doing second-rate Dion drag; she slumps amiably on a bench and watches the world go by.
But for too much of its running time, the film wanders away from its early daffiness and plods dutifully through a series of Dion’s looks and shows, and her struggle to balance motherhood and her historically long-running Vegas residency. Besides the huge age difference between her and her husband, there isn’t much real-life drama to mine in a happy marriage. ‘Aline’ seems too invested in doing right by the singer to do anything very speculative or comic in the later years, but it also feels not well-enough informed about the details that makes the real Dion so unusual. Surely this woman has more interesting personal aspects to her than this rote tale of devoted marriage and motherhood. Just a quick YouTube search, for example, will show you she’s a lot more engaged with her fans than this portrayal of artistic isolation suggests.
However: ‘Aline’ got four César nominations, and won one for Lemercier as Best Actress, so clearly the French are digging this in ways that we Americans maybe don’t get. I’m willing to consider that something is lost in translation. I certainly hope that’s the case with the last song in the film, “Ordinaire,” whose translated lyrics (admittedly, not written by Dion) read like a mawkish diary entry. “You see me as a goddess/I’m a woman, not a princess/If I can make a confession…/It’s when I sing that I feel best/But this is a dangerous profession/The more you give, the more the world wants.” That’s possibly true of the real singer, but for me, this was more than enough of Aline.