In 'Aline,' Your Heart Will Go ‘Non’

Valérie Lemercier's unauthorized Céline Dion biopic is a feat of pure gumption

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 25: Valerie Lemercier receives the Best Actress Cesar award for the movie “...
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images
Chris Feil
the way it is

The name “Aline Dieu” may mean nothing to you yet, but a new day of musical biopics has come. Her story comes alive in Aline, charting her life from early teen stardom in Canada to falling in love with her manager twice her age, later struggling to conceive and eventually mounting a massive stage success in Las Vegas, all while delivering megahit songs like “My Heart Will Go On” and “All By Myself.” That’s right, the name “Aline Dieu” means nothing to you because Aline is, you guessed it, the story of Céline Dion. Or as the film’s (no doubt, lawyer-mandated) foreboding opening title card puts it, it is “inspired by the life of Céline Dion” while being “however, a work of fiction.” Somehow both The Rose and Jackie Jormp-Jomp combined, Aline only gets more bizarre from there.

The carnival ride brainchild of French star-writer-director Valérie Lemercier (whose performance was recently awarded the French Oscar equivalent, the César Award, for Best Actress), Aline is a biopic made through pure gumption, becoming its own backwards tuxedo. Undeterred by such obstructions such as life rights and licensing fees, Lemercier tells a respectful version of Dion’s life that combines authorized and unauthorized biographical storytelling in often befuddling ways that, while shocking, rarely add up to more than the sum of their parts.

In many ways it operates like an average musical biopic, recreating album covers and iconic looks from Dion’s decades-spanning career. But moving past the confoundingly crunchy pseudonym, Lemercier’s oddball creative choices are what launch the film into “must be seen to be believed” territory. Aline is the work of a filmmaker and star letting her freak flag fly, especially in her commitment to playing the singer from birth to superstardom. CGI helps shrink Lemercier next to her costars when she plays the toddler and teen Dieu, with hazy de-aging technology shrouding her in an Instagram filter fog. The effect is equal parts Cats and Irishman-inspired RuPaul’s Drag Race acting challenge, mostly distracting us from the film’s otherwise by-the-numbers approach to the musical biopic formula. Lemercier is perhaps a stranger to American audiences, though in France she is known for such performance identity stunts — including performing in blackface and what sounds a lot like Titane without all the murder. Aline often feels like it’s a stunt too.

Aline is a biopic made through pure gumption, becoming its own backwards tuxedo.

It doesn’t help that Lemercier’s version of Céline Dion is that of an uncomplicated, singularly-motivated angel plopping along from one recognizable scenario to the next. There’s not much to this Céline — sorry, Aline (although she is, no joke, mistakenly called Céline at one point) — beyond affability and the odd behavior or two, like singing along to Sylvester with a mouthful of toothpaste, dunking a croissant into a glass of champagne, or reheating her dinner with a hair dryer. While tender in its portrayal, the film doesn’t have a strong idea of who this woman is outside of the limelight. This is part of what makes Aline such a uniquely jarring experience: it's as banal as it is hilariously surreal.

Perhaps an easier, or less technologically ambitious, task would have been embodying Dion’s performance style, which Lemercier unfortunately does not. Approximation of a famous person’s mannerisms does not alone make a good performance, but Lemercier’s physicality doesn’t at all approach Dion’s grand drama. She relies on the costuming and wigwork to summon a recognizable Dion to mixed results, though the transformation of Sylvain Marcel as her husband René Angélil is more spookily accurate. The film’s staging of Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” Oscar performance (a sequence where the words “Titanic” and “Academy Awards” are never uttered) is devoid of her chest-thumping, arm choreo brilliance. Dion’s defining characteristic is her passion, in all of its earnest and over-wrought glory, and there’s little of that here. You could say Aline’s central performance presents a Céline Dion in name only, but… well, you get it.

Much of the film’s drama tepidly lingers in the long gestating flirtation between Dion and her manager Angélil (here called Guy-Claude Kamar). The film doesn’t avoid the specifics that led to their marriage — the two met when Dion was 12 and Angélil was in his late 30s — but it's an unquestioningly rosy portrayal: under the watchful eye of her mother, Aline’s love for the hesitant Guy-Claude isn’t realized until she wins Not Eurovision But It’s Eurovision in adulthood. Here is where the choice for Lemercier to play a digitally shrunken preteen early in the film feels like it might be a subconscious attempt to not lose the audience entirely, replacing a potential ick factor with uncanny valley-induced disorientation instead.

Only once Guy-Claude dies does the film attempt to understand or psychoanalyze Aline, casting a dour ending note as the film attempts to belatedly interrogate the superficiality of fame. Once the film decides to have a point of view, it kind of fails that too; it leaves us with a Céline Dion defined by grief more than anything else, which is incongruous with the real Dion, as even the most casual of fans could tell you. The film as a whole can be summarized in one of its final images: Lemercier’s Aline mistaken for an Aline impersonator on the Vegas strip and seated in front of a neon marquee for $12.95 spare rib.

Aline’s love for the hesitant Guy-Claude isn’t realized until she wins ‘Not Eurovision But It’s Eurovision’ in adulthood.

It’s difficult to suss out whether Aline’s shortcomings are due to legal limitations or if it just doesn’t get what’s most compelling about Dion and her career. Mostly, audiences will leave wanting more songs than they’re given: you may get multiple performances of “All By Myself” in multiple languages, but the film is light on Dion’s megahits. You won’t get “Because You Loved Me,” but Aline does give you “Let’s Talk About Love” twice. Though Dion’s song catalog has always had its hefty share of covers, Aline is strangely filled with other people’s music. French recording artist Victoria Sio admirably performs Aline’s singing voice but doesn’t match Dion’s spine-rattling roar. I mean, who could?

All of this further distances us from the living star whose story Aline is trying to tell in the first place. It’s the inverse of Pablo Larraín’s biopic oddities: instead of utilizing a heightened strangeness to reveal the interiority of a famous woman and our cultural relationship with her, the film only reveals the gleeful misguidedness of its creator. Aline is the Goldschläger of musical biopics: unappetizing and decadent in all the wrong ways, but too absurd to not sample once.

Chris Feil is a freelance entertainment writer, with work in Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AVClub, and Polygon, among others. He co-hosts the film podcast This Had Oscar Buzz.