Valérie Lemercier’s Céline Dion Kinda-Bio-Pic

The living-person bio-pic is a tricky genre. Make a movie about NWA, and the group’s former manager sues you for a hundred and ten million dollars. Take on WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange sends you a letter calling you a “jobbing actor.” It was maybe not Valérie Lemercier’s most foolproof idea, then, to write, direct, and star in “Aline,” about Aline Dieu—a highly disciplined, lovably bonkers Quebecois power balladeer with thirteen siblings and an omnipresent husband/manager—who Lemercier acknowledges is “freely inspired” by Céline Dion. There’s also the fact that Lemercier, who is fifty-eight, decided to play Aline at every point in her life de ella, starting as a five-year-old in ankle socks.

Valerie LemercierIllustration by João Fazenda

But this is the French cinema! Lemercier’s collaborators and financiers loved the pitch. There were the biographical similarities between Lemercier and Dion: rural upbringing in a large family; prodigious talent in a body that didn’t always look or move in the way that the entertainment industry thought it should. “I wanted to talk about the solitude of leaving the stage,” Lemercier said, the other day. “There’s a kind of emptiness that you have when the crowd has gone.” Lemercier is a major star in France. Known for her off-kilter physical humor, she had already infantilized herself to success, with a well-known bit, about a youth talent competition, that she performed entirely on her knees.

“I approach my roles as though I’m the lawyer for my character,” she said. “I would n’t send my assistant to defend her when we make fun of her —I want to do it myself.” Somehow, the gambit works, even with minimal special effects. Lemercier’s willingness to let the bizarre into the life of a diva renders it realer than dutiful realism.

Lemercier was walking from a café in the First Arrondissement to a nearby apartment that she keeps for work. She arrived wearing high-heeled gold boots, jeans, and a bomber jacket on loan from Dior. In the hall, she ran into a neighbor, who told her that he’d liked “Aline.”

“It was a little bit long, though,” he added.

Lemercier winced. (Later, she confided that a negative comment from a stranger can ding her confidence for days.) In the apartment, she strewn suitcases regurgitated shoes and clothes. “Pigsty!” she said. She offered buckwheat tea—“de l’or pour ton corps”—before asking if it was OK to light a cigarette. “Some journalist wrote that I vaped,” she said, disdainfully. She was giving great French Movie Star, sitting in front of a floor-to-ceiling window as dusk fell over the serried chestnut trees of the Palais-Royal garden.

“Look, I love them, too, but Pharaoh wants to go another way.”
Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

She said that she made the decision to call Céline “Aline” to free herself up as she wrote the script. She was inspired by “Amadeus” and the “extremely strong angle” that the film’s creators took in exaggerating the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri; she looked to “Amélie” for its light touch with the passage of time. Even the made-up scenes in “Aline”—a trek in skates to an audition, an ice-cream-cone engagement—seem in keeping with Dion’s sentimental spirit of her. One of the surprise good guys is a character representing René Angélil, Dion’s husband, who comes across as a genial protector rather than as the Svengali of press reports. Wasn’t Lemercier going a little against the grain, in valorizing a romance between a pair who met when he was thirty-eight and she was twelve?

“She was twenty when they started their affair, and at twenty we kiss who we want,” Lemercier replied, adding, “I would have loved to have a René by my side sometimes.”

Eleven, she did. “He worked in a different industry. He had his life from him, ”she recalled. “I got a horrible review, and he went to the newsstands in the neighborhood and bought up all the copies so that I wouldn’t see it.”

The film has drawn criticism from some of Dion’s relatives (“We come off as a bunch of bums”) and from defenders of Quebec (“Imagine if we released a film about Tony Hairday or Judith Paf”), but it’s been a box- office and a critical success. (By contrast, a 2008 film in which Lemercier appeared in blackface, as a racist cosmetics executive with a disease that darkens her skin, “didn’t generate the slightest controversy,” according to Le Monde. “It’s a film which today, with hindsight, could indeed have been played, danced, and sung by a Black actress who would have been made up in white for the first two-thirds of the film,” Lemercier said.) In February, Lemercier won Best Actress at the Césars, the French Oscars, for “Aline.”

The film ends shortly after Angélil’s death, in 2016, ignoring Dion’s transformation into a lewk-throwing fashion icon, a period that many consider the most interesting of her life. “I find it too dark,” Lemercier said. “I sense a kind of frenzy.” Lemercier’s offering to Dion is that of restitutive calm. “I wanted to give her moments of freedom and anonymity that she’s never had.”

Portraying Dion, she said, has given her the ability to get over herself a little bit. Lemercier recently participated in a biographical documentary, something that she never would have done, she said, without Dion’s sporting example of her. She said, “I realize now that it’s not all that dramatic, that one has to say who one is.” ♦

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