Let’s talk about love — and open secrets. Because both are at the heart of what makes Valérie Lemercier’s new film Aline such an oddity, if not quite the oddity that was promised. The New York Times, writing about the movie’s debut at Cannes last year, made Lemercier’s project out to be a curious spectacle: the kind of atypically un-self-serious fare that, through the boldness of its sheer strangeness, “somehow boomerangs back into auteurism.” Vanity Fair called the film “an utter shock.”
What’s more true is that Aline comes perilously close to being the uncanny, discomfiting spectacle that was promised, with an unusual gambit at the center of the movie, only for the entire thing to gently, graciously ebb back into a safe zone. What starts as one of those rare, unplaceable, maybe-satire, maybe-camp, high-wire pop confections morphs into a fairly straightforward biopic about a beloved superstar that seems overly wary of pissing off a living idol.
This is a movie about Céline Dion — rather, Céline by another name, Aline Dieu. It isn’t hiding this fact. It’s “a fiction loosely inspired by the life of” the pop megastar, the movie poster tells us, and the parallels — from the familiarity of the main character’s own life story down to the songs she sings — aren’t really trying to fool anyone. Only in its approach to telling the story does it come off, at first, as a bit winking. It seems you cannot tell the story of Céline without it being, in large part, a love story, not only because of the songs she sings, but because her career is difficult to disentangle from the presiding romance of her life. The movie maps the singer’s iconic songs back onto her life with the neat, one-to-one, explanatory power familiar to the biopic genre, getting a bit of a lift from the fact that it can additionally operate like a musical, climaxing with glitzy, buoyant arena spectacles. The extremes of the singer’s inner life — her loves, furies, and insecurities — are twined to her broader biography by way of key songs. It has a way of making her seem larger than life, destined for greatness, because she is as sincere as her music is. Her music enlarges our sense of who she is. More than that, the understanding goes, it tells us who she is.
What do these songs tell us about the inevitable elephant in the room: her love? If you’ve heard anything about this movie, it’s that, in addition to directing the movie, Lemercier plays Aline herself. And she plays Aline at all ages. From five years old, miniaturized, too small to see over the edge of the stage as her large (12 siblings!) family performs at a sibling’s wedding; to middle age, fully-grown and, eventually, widowed. This is Aline’s strange, founding trick. In another movie, this would maybe work to more purely humorous, perhaps surreal, effect. Aline almost falls into this trap. Lemercier is a comedian, and of course, she avails herself of the oddball fun of playing a hobbit-sized, overexcited child — a child whose bad teeth and unglamorous looks are only outsized by the overwhelming power of her voice. Picture the adult Lemercier performing, as a five year old, at a sibling’s wedding. Then picture her at 12, meeting her manager-to-be for the first time: the same actor, with little pretense to obscuring the fact that this is a goofy adult play-acting as a preternaturally gifted kid.
Now picture her a little later, late teens, gushing over the man she loves — the aforementioned manager — without being able to say his name in public, for fear of exactly the kind of scrutiny that this movie seems to be courting. It is well known that there was a 26-year age difference between Dion and her manager and partner Rene Angélil, who died in 2016 of throat cancer. The murky particulars of the origin of that coupling — their acquaintance really did begin when Dion was only 12 — have tempted many people over the years to backdate that romance, which officially began when the singer was 18 (and despite the objections of her parents).
Aline knows this. Whether it knows that its approach to this material is playing with fire is a separate question. But that indecision, or knowing playfulness, or comedic failure, is what makes the movie such a curious object. It builds discomfort into the movie by way of biography, calling attention to the obvious in a way that makes it plausible as satire — until it abandons that idea. Here, Angélil is renamed Guy-Claude Kamar (and played by Sylvain Marcel), and, like in real life, her parents aren’t feeling it. You can buy that Aline and Guy-Claude’s actual life as a couple doesn’t start until she’s a consenting adult and still wince — because the movie’s fulsome sense of humor, legible as either satirical exaggeration or simply feather-light love story, encourages reaction.
If the idea is to satirize Guy-Claude’s interest in Aline, the movie is onto something — maybe. There’s a version of what plays out onscreen that could have been ripped from the mind of a man who’s deluded himself into thinking Aline was always, to some degree, the goofy, fun-loving — not childish, per se — adult that Lemercier makes her out to be. (This would deflect from the actual nature of his attraction, but it’d at least be an idea.) If the idea is to distract from the thing we’ve all avoiding talking about, the question we’ve avoided asking, the movie marvelously fails. Yet even in that failure there’d be room to persistently explore the idea. A tightrope is clearly being walked. To what end, becomes the question.
Dion and Angélil’s love was a genuine love, by all accounts, including those of the couple’s friends and collaborators. Still there have been questions. In 2019, comedian Katherine Ryan made a joke about the couple’s age gap that ultimately intended to punch in R. Kelly’s direction, not Angélil’s, even as the premise of the joke struck a sense of equivalency between these men. Yet even she would come to temper her gentle elbow to the ribs with apologetic clarification. (“I hope people watching the special — Céline Dion included . . . understand all of the material comes from a place of reverence, admiration, and love,” Ryan said.) What made the joke viable to begin with was the sense that it was really about the irony of questions asked of some, but not of others. And that it had occurred to many of us more than once, even if it remained unspoken.
In Aline’s case, it very well may have remained unspoken — but for the fact that the movie feels, for a long stretch, like it’s about to go there. Imagine that Lemercier hadn’t played 12-year-old Aline, but rather that an actual pre-teen had been there at Kamar’s side, with another actress playing her further along — and so on. That might have made it harder to make this love story pure and simple (but pure most of all). We’d have wound up with something closer to The Tale, Jennifer Fox’s 2018 meta-autobiography, starring Laura Dern, in which Fox depicts being groomed by an older man, ingeniously deploying two versions of her younger self to restore a sense of shocking realism to her film’s recollection. There’s the version of her as she remembers herself, the young woman on the verge of being adult — old enough to have agency in this dynamic, in other words, or so she seems to want to think later, as an older woman. And then there’s the alternative, that dose of reality: a version of the same events in which our heroine’s younger self is played by an actress who looks closer to Fox’s actual age at that time: a child. For the older Fox, the gap between her conception of her younger self, the willing younger woman, and her actual younger self proves both clarifying and mortifying.
These are different movies with different ends in mind. What unites them is that, in Aline, Lemercier proceeds as if trying to avoid falling into precisely the trap of recognition that The Tale so startlingly impresses upon us. Aline is not a flashback story, like The Tale. It is linear myth-making. Meaning: adulthood happens. Consensual love, expressed with breathless puppy-dog intensity by Aline, happens. And Aline slips so seamlessly into run-of-the-mill hagiography (albeit with lavish, open-armed musical sequences, particularly later on, during Dieu’s Caesars run) that it’s intriguingly hard, in retrospect, to pinpoint when it stops being a send-up of the age-gap dilemma and instead slips into the steadier comforts of uncritical appreciation of its subject.
This, too, feels like a product of Lemercier’s choice to play Dieu at all ages. The transition from 12 to 18 to thirtysomething is so unburdened by actual attempts to transfigure the movie’s director and star that we’re inclined to forget where we started. The long arc of the relationship, starting with Aline and Guy-Claude’s above-board, backstage flirtations, is made to feel like it was always a relationship between two adults. It takes so long for the irony of this to catch up to us that by the time one wonders what happened with the film’s opening conceit, Aline is already old enough to be wary, worn down, overworked. She’s very nearly already a mother. Whether this is what Lemercier intended is for her alone to say. But something feels amiss — it’s like the movie bit off more than it could chew and burped its mouthful of ideas up into a dinner cloth when we weren’t looking. The feat is only more remarkable for the seeming innocence of Lemercier’s performance: Does it really just come down to Lemercier doing a silly bit?
For most of the rest of its runtime, Aline does what biopics have steadily convinced us it is their job to do. It delivers the public triumphs (the record sales, the bigger and bigger concerts) and in-jokes (such as Aline’s first impression of what we all recognize to be “My Heart Will Go On”) and private difficulties (conceiving a child), glinting through the bullet points of a celebrity’s life with all the touch-and-go expediency of a stone sent skipping across water. That much is straightforward.
Yet there’s always a tinge of friction. Late in the movie, we see Aline escape the confines — the gilded cage — of Caesars Palace. She’s at the highest point of her career. She wanders out into the world of Las Vegas as if she’s never touched grass, let alone concrete, before. Suddenly we’re pressed to see what a sheltered life she has lived to this point — as if that otherworldly voice of hers were in fact the consequence of her truly being from another world, an alien among us, liberated, even if only for an afternoon. For a moment, the movie’s inciting gambit seems to rear its head again. Aline comes off like a woman reduced to a childlike lack of experience, which matches the depiction we’ve seen to this point. A young marriage and a startlingly successful career, a life lived almost entirely in service of her art. It’s no wonder there seems to be a chasm between her and the world of mere mortals. Here’s to the sacrifices made by our stars.
You can trace the through-line from Aline’s opening oddities to this late tear in the fabric of its increasingly rote routine. It’s a line that, to some, cannot be drawn without Guy-Claude. He is the bubble wrap securing her vacuum-sealed, ecstatically comfortable world. That’s the germ of a more provocative idea. In the worldview of this movie, there’s no room for it: There is no such thing as love conquered by provocation. And there’s diminishing room for skepticism. Laugh it off. Leave it behind. “I would hate to ever make Céline Dion mad,” comedian Katherine Ryan was pushed to confess. She apparently isn’t alone.