Run Time: 2 hours 13 minutes
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel
Writer/Director: Valérie Lemercier
There are so many reasons why Aline—a barely disguised cinematic biography of Canadian supersongstress Celine Dion—has no right to succeed.
Written and directed by its star, French comedian Valérie Lemercier, the film’s over-the-top evocation of the singer’s humble beginnings, early professional struggles and ultimate unhappy success seems to lampoon the traditional tropes of show biz bios. More outlandishly, Lemercier, now 58, even plays 12-year-old Aline—the actor’s face digitally superimposed on the body of a young girl with no apparent effort to disguise the effects of age.
It’s all goofily absurd, yet the whole film is played absolutely straight, with earnest performances by all and an evocative music score that relentlessly telegraphs how the audience should be feeling at any given moment.
What’s more, it’s even a stretch to say the biographical elements of Aline are “disguised” at all: The opening credits brazenly declare the whole film is “inspired by the life of Celine Dion.” Aside from some judiciously placed classic pop numbers, every song is a Celine original, voiced by a French sound-alike singer named Victoria Sio.
Random cinematic absurdity has never appealed to me, and I’m not much of a Celine fan. So, why did I sit at rapt attention through every second of Aline’s two-hour-plus run time?
For one thing, the absurdities of Aline are perhaps not quite as random as they seem, in that Dion’s real life seems to have consisted of one absurdity after another. Celine really was the youngest of 14 children, raised by working parents in Quebec. She really was discovered at age 12 by a talent agent after her brother sent him a cassette tape in the mail. And she really did eventually fall in love with and marry the guy, even though he was 30 years her senior.
As screenwriter, Lemercier has gifted herself with the role of a lifetime; an ageless character who dwells somewhere between Judy Garland in A Star is Born and Audrey Tatou in Amalie. Playing Alina’s much-older husband, Canadian actor Sylvain Marcel (who is actually the same age as his leading lady) sketches the man with endearing, wide-eyed charm. This is a guy utterly without guile; his love for Alina is as pure and clear as her chime-like voice. In a film where the most credibility-stretching twist is the love of a vivacious teenager for a middle-aged show biz schlump, Marcel makes that conceit not just believable, but somehow inevitable.
There may be legal reasons why Lemercier plays the biography/not really a biography card so coyly (Dion has pointedly refused to comment on this unauthorized sort-of adaptation of her life). In the end, though, even as Alina mostly traces its subject’s life story with the slavish faithfulness of a Wikipedia page, what emerges is something more nuanced than your garden variety screen biography.
Even in their most “realistic” representations of life, Lemercier reminds us, movies are no more authentic than an oil painting. Filmmakers choose the palette. They enlist the models who stand in for the subjects. They even dictate the angles from which we view the subject, controlling our perspective and, in a very real sense, controlling our judgment and emotion.
Lemercier is not the first French filmmaker to make it a point to remind the audience, over and over, that “it’s only a movie.” Jean-Luc Goddard, now 91, has been doing that since the Sixties. But seldom has a director been so jovially good-natured in the pursuit; so happy to let us see the director’s hand with such happy results.
Featured image: Scene from Aline (Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films)