The idea of an auteur, a single person (usually the director) who can mold a film to their vision over the crowd of people involved in filmmaking, has grown into the unspoken backbone of the way we talk about and critique films. It’s also, I would argue erroneously, used to denote quality, hence the vigorous debates over whether highly commercial and not very acclaimed filmmakers like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder qualify for the label despite their films being instantly recognizable as their films.
Much the same argument can be had over Valérie Lemercier for her film Aline, which undoubtedly qualifies as a singular vision but can hardly be labeled as an artistic achievement. Unless you’re the Césars, I guess, where the film was nominated across the board and won Lemercier the Best Actress award. An award, I must point out and continuously reiterate, the 58-year-old actress won for playing a character (unconvincingly) from childhood to adulthood, including a long stint at age 12.
There’s no use beating around the bush of this film’s bizarreness. If you know, you know, and if you don’t, hold on to your hat. Aline is an unauthorized biopic of Céline Dion, the French Canadian singer who impressed manager René Angélil at age 12, quickly became famous and stayed famous, married said manager, and sang that Titanic song. Her’s is a life unsuited for biopics for a truckload of reasons. The marriage was, by all accounts, entirely above board, but it remains vaguely unsettling. Her career hit very few speed bumps and her personal life was just as smooth, which gives a film very little conflict to structure itself around. And Céline, despite her massive stardom, is a deeply uncool pop singer.
Outside the banger My Heart Will Go On, the only moment I’ve stopped to think about Céline Dion was through the intentional reputation overhaul that is the Mommy soundtrack. Taking a litany of disparate and often dismissed songs (Oasis’ Wonderwall is a big one), writer/director Xavier Dolan reminded us of these songs became such massive hits, tapping into the immediate emotions they inspired before we became inured to them. He placed a Dion song at one of the movie’s emotional peaks, where the characters come together for a freeing, uninhibited dance to one of her perfectly unconceited hits, a moment of hope within a doomed narrative.
This moment of basking in Dion’s vocal skills being delivered directly at the masses is what Lemercier seems to be going for with Aline, which somehow got the rights to many of her songs without getting the rights to her life’s story (or did they even attempt?). Lemercier claims she wove her own life into Dion’s to create Aline, but the film also has a joke where Aline is mistakenly called Céline, so you’re supposed to be aware of the blatant ripoff. Whatever legal issues or personal intrusion you might fear, though, is quickly swept away by a first hour that is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to describe. It’s a chirpy, garish take on every feel-good biopic trope you can think of, replete with humorous montages that glide over her childhood years as if she and her massive family (Aline is the youngest of 14 children) were on a never-ending breeze. That the entire family remains close, are in a band together, and seemingly have never contemplated a fight before is its own jarring fantasy, but remember, within all of this is Lemercier, a woman in her 50s with no makeup or CGI de-aging (if it exists it’s entirely unconvincing) gallivanting around as if she’s an innocent child. Certain shots use forced perspective or some other tricks to make her appear shorter, but that’s it, the only concession to the fantastical leap Lemercier asks of the audience.
It’s alternatively chilling and hilarious to see everyone behave like the grown woman in front of them is a child, like you’ve entered a Twilight Zone episode where eventually, mercifully, Rod Serling will step forward and explain that adults can never regain the spark of childhood. Instead of that reprieve, though, you get the slow progression of time where Aline inches closer to Lemercier’s age, or at least an age feasible for her face, and the effect fades away. In the meantime, you are subjected to Aline’s teenage affection for the Angélil substitute, Sylvain Marcel’s Guy-Claude Kamar, their marriage, and come out the other side to the much more mundane goings-on of Aline’s later life (if getting lost in your Las Vegas mansion can be considered mundane).
At this point you’ve hit hour two of the biopic, and Lemercier, against all odds, has lulled you into the film’s bizarre ethos. She’s gotten you to acquiesce, to go with every inexplicable turn and development of the film, whose very strangeness, at this point, is that nothing much is happening. And yet you are riveted, entranced by Aline’s privileged life sprawling before you like a gift you get to indulge in as a brief respite from your own problems. I suppose that is the point of cinema, but as it gears up to leave you on a high note, the strain of the film returns. There’s no way it can pretend that what you’ve just witnessed has a rousing, grand point to make, but it tries and instead leaves you with the same thrilling unreality it dropped you into at its start.
A masterpiece? No. A Céline Dion biopic? Sort of. A vision you could never anticipate and may never see again? Completely.
Release: available now in theaters
Director: Valérie Lemercier
Writers: Valérie Lemercier, Brigitte Buc
Cast: Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud