‘Aline,’ Cannes’ Unauthorized Celine Dion Biopic, Is Like a Will Ferrell Movie Without the Jokes
French comedian Valerie Lemercier portrays pop diva Celine Dion in almost every stage of her life in the new biopic. But sadly, it barely scratches the surface.
In perhaps the most erudite and humane book of criticism ever written, Let’s Talk About Love, the music journalist Carl Wilson brilliantly used Celine Dion’s album of the same name to discuss the subjective nature of good taste and to try to understand what makes Dion so world-dominatingly popular.
Written a handful of years after the commercial highpoint of Dion’s career—the Oscar win for her record-setting theme song for Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On”—the book has since been strangely overtaken by a shift in public taste and changing attitudes toward Dion. The braying vulgarity of Dion’s music is now seen as offensive only to a dwindling number of dreary musos, and where Dion once passed for a figure of fun and mockery, she has now entered into a sort of legend where she is the subject of memes and viral videos: the singer is viewed with genuine fondness, and Dion herself seems to be in on the joke.
Into such a context lands Aline, a new film by the French comedian Valerie Lemercier, about the life of the Canadian singer. The movie is a strange object, as it presents itself with all the hallmarks of comedic caricature (bowdlerized names, jokes, heightened performances, a lead actor from a comedy background), yet it behaves like a straight-up biopic, uses almost all of Dion’s greatest hits (performed by a singer sounding remarkably like Dion), and seems reluctant to mock its subject. In so doing, the film becomes essentially a loving tribute—but it feels oddly hollow and defanged, and may leave viewers wondering exactly what the point of the whole fandango is.
Starting some years before the birth of its protagonist, Aline kicks off with the story of her father, born into poverty, and of his encounter with the formidable woman who would eventually give birth to the singer. Before this, the couple produce thirteen other children, whose preposterous names (Jean-Bobin, Jeannette, Sylvette, etc.) are reeled off over a hilarious montage of a growing family. In these scenes the film is fully in joke mode, poking amiable fun at the cheesy Quebecois-ness of the Dion family, here rechristened Dieu. More jokes are crowbarred in at the beginning, such as a delicious one where Aline’s manager and husband to be, Guy-Claude Kamar (a like-for-like representation of Dion’s real-life husband-manager Rene Angelil), accidentally calls her “Celine” and is corrected. These gags, plus the film’s aesthetic comedy stylings—it looks like the French equivalent of a Will Ferrell movie—occasionally land, but if it’s a comedy, the jokes are rather thin on the ground.
What stands in for the jokes, instead, is a weirdly straight-up procession of Dion’s most notable moments—her first television appearance, or her Eurovision victory, or her Las Vegas residency. Lemercier’s impression of Dion is dead-on, and she duly portrays the singer as gawky and awkward—but the movie doesn’t go any further in broadening the character, to a point where she could be funny. Nor does the film really work in any other mode. Where is the dramatic interest in this parade of hits and successes? If Dion is so lovable (and indeed, it seems from all accounts like she is the kindest woman in showbiz), then where are we to get a story from?
Aline’s plot revolves around the singer’s romance with her manager, but—apart from one scene in which Aline’s mother voices her opposition to the union—the film depicts this union between a teenage singer and her manager, who first met her when she was twelve, with no criticism whatsoever. This feels like a madness: it must have been politic for the filmmakers to tell the story in this way, for legal reasons, but there is a deep awkwardness in that relationship, and it simply does not work as a heartwarming romance. In fact, the film ends at the point where Dion—for this writer’s money—became most interesting, after the death of her husband. We may never know if he controlled her, and if so to what extent, but in recent years Dion has emerged as a more fun person, one who seems to have embraced her public image as a bit of a kook, where she used to appear rather smug and self-serious. What happened, to liberate her in that way? You won’t find an answer in Aline, which ends just as the protagonist discovers a world beyond her job.
Lemercier’s film is surprising, in that it is genuinely sweet-natured where it could have been cruel, as Dion is an obvious target for comedy—and there is, at times, something touching in the way Aline refuses to bait its subject. On the contrary, we see Aline’s desire for children, and her love of performance, shine through. But a film cannot rest on the accuracy of an impersonation alone; the costumes, corresponding to recognizable stages in Dion’s development as an artist and woman, are likewise completely on the money. But is that interesting? Is it good?
Aline is a quite handsomely mounted object, with money behind it and a certain eye for framing—a film which lovingly evokes a singular figure from contemporary culture. As such it seems guaranteed to do the business at the box office, but it feels like a lost opportunity to either dig down deeper into the soul of a pop star, or to break out a few more laughs by ripening the portrayal. If you want to know about the performer and be entertained, still the best thing you can do is read Let’s Talk About Love and watch the YouTube clip of Celine Dion herself performing “Who Let The Dogs Out” in the manner of a chicken.