As any Celine Dion fan will tell you, the Quebecois singer — also known as Canada’s National Treasure — is something of a comedian. Whether she’s remixing “My Heart Will Go On” with DJ Steve Aoki, using only her voice, or putting her own spin on “Baby Shark” in a “Carpool Karaoke” segment, Dion is hilarious. And so it’s only fitting that for her first major biopic, the legend was played by a comedian.
French comic actor, stand-up and director Valérie Lemercier was more than up to the task with the Gaumont-produced and distributed “Aline,” which she directs and stars in as Aline Dieu, a fictional character who is meant to be Dion.
The film — which received Dion’s blessing via the artist’s French manager — is based loosely on the “My Heart Will Go On” singer’s life, though Lemercier changed names and certain events so as to give the movie some creative freedom. (One departure that will raise eyebrows in Canada is Dion and her family’s accents in the movie, which lean more towards French accents from France rather than the specific Quebecois accent — a sore topic between France and French Canada.)
Premiering out of competition in Cannes on Tuesday, the crowd-pleasing “Aline” is a love story more than anything, focusing on Dion’s upbringing in Quebec and her scandalous early courtship with manager René Angélil — 26 years her senior — who later became her husband. Lemercier takes us through the singer’s journey from local talent to international superstar, with plenty of her hit songs along the way.
In an interview with Variety, Lemercier discussed her admiration for Dion, why the movie didn’t use her real name or original songs, and the politics of French vs. Quebecois accents.
Did you get Celine’s sign-off for the movie?
The first thing I did was give the script to her French manager. She read it and said it’s good for Celine; she said it doesn’t mock her. She could see how much I loved her. That was the first thing I did but Celine didn’t want to read anything. She didn’t see the movie.
But she’s okay with the movie being in the world?
A lot of things are invented, but I tried to be in the perfume of Celine’s life. Nothing is against her. But some things are invented to be more cinematic and romantic sometimes.
The wedding proposal, for example, there was no diamond ring in an ice cream but [René Angélil] was like that. He liked to feed people. I know that. And it’s the kind of thing he would do, to invite the whole crew to have ice cream in Naples.
Tell me a bit about your own relationship with Celine. You’re a fan?
Yes, but late. Not in the early years. Not when she was 14. After her first [major] album in 1995, I began to know [her work]. I didn’t know her before. When I saw her first steps alone [at her husband’s funeral], I was very touched by that. I said I wanted to make a movie about her. I spent about one year watching everything about Celine, night and day. Of course, [I read] a lot of books and watched videos about René. I listened to a lot of songs about Quebec and read about Quebec history. I wanted to make a movie about Quebec, not only Celine…In Quebec, the culture is song. It’s really important not only in Celine’s life but in Quebec life and my life. I grew up on Quebecois songs from Félix Leclerc and Robert Charlebois.
Have you ever met her or seen her live?
Just one time, on stage. I’ve never met her.
Do you want to?
Yes. Sometimes, in my dreams, I’ve seen her arriving after the premiere of the movie. But I know it’s probably not easy to see yourself on screen. Throughout her life, she lost her father, mother and husband. If I was Celine, I’m not sure I’d run to watch it. I hope she will recognize something [of herself in the film], but she should do what she wants.
In your previous movies like “Palais royal!” with Catherine Deneuve, a send-up of a royal family in which you play a Princess Diana-like character, you’ve leaned towards satire. But this isn’t satire.
No, not at all. I wanted to be first-degree — all the time. There is one small segment about the Quebecois accent, which you could take out of the movie and it wouldn’t change, but this was, for us, something funny. The Quebecois vocabulary isn’t in the movie, and I asked the actors to use very [light] accents. In France, when we have [Quebecois director] Xavier Dolan’s movies, they are subtitled. I didn’t want that. I wanted the film to be understood by Francophones in Europe. And me, I know Quebecois think I don’t have a good accent, and it’s true. They’re right. But I preferred to [strive] for less, than for more.
Celine Dion’s songs are featured in the movie, but you’re lip synching them, right?
No. It’s not Celine Dion singing her songs. We have the rights to sing the songs again, but by French singer Victoria Sio. We heard 50 singers and we chose her in the end. We worked a lot last summer in the studio to [perfect the delivery].
Wow. She’s very convincing.
I know people think it’s Celine, but it’s not Celine. We couldn’t [do] the movie without having rights to sing all those songs. I wanted to have “The Power of Love” but it wasn’t possible. So I didn’t put it in the movie. The only song that was the problem was “Ziggy” [from the Quebec musical “Starmania”]. Michel Berger, the composer, said I wanted to listen to [Sio] singing before authorizing the song.
Did her team specifically say the movie couldn’t be called “Celine”?
No, it was my decision. We wrote the script with Brigitte Buc, who wrote “Palais royal!” too and she said, ‘Change the name, it will all be easier’ and it’s true. It is the perfume of her life, but it’s not exactly the same.
Whereabouts did you shoot?
We shot in four countries. That’s why the credits are so long. There were 7,400 people working on the film.
This is the first major biopic about Celine Dion. Can we officially call it a biopic?
You can. I chose “Aline” because it’s more funny and I prefer a lie well made than the truth. They offered us the chance to shoot in a house that belonged to Celine and René and I didn’t want that; I wanted to make up their own home. I wanted a small distance. I tried to give to the public a sense of what I think that life is.
What did you find most challenging in becoming “Aline”? Because she’s so funny, isn’t she?
She is funny. She’s never, never boring. From 12 to… she is always funny. She twists everything, even sad things. And she has luck. I didn’t make an imitation of her voice, but her body, yes. I tried to move like her…I was also not the prettiest little girl at school as well, so that’s something that touched me a lot. I was also not so good at school and I spent a lot of my life on stage because I made a lot of one-woman shows as a stand-up. Since I was 26, I have spent 30 years on stage so I know — on a small scale — what it’s like. I spent a lot of time in the dressing room, eating my chicken in front of the mirror and spending a lot of time on the road, far from my family. And the loneliness you can feel when it’s finished and the people are gone: this is something I can understand a lot.
Do you see the international potential for the movie?
It’s already sold in 42 or 43 countries, but not yet in the U.S. Canada co-produced the movie. They will release two weeks after France. I’ll go there. They’re waiting for me with a [pretends to wield a knife]. They are afraid of my accent. They don’t like it. But they’ve only seen the trailer; they haven’t seen the movie.
Right. Because you’ve used a French accent rather than a Quebecois accent in the movie.
Yes. And I want people to laugh. And if you have a very moving scene, and if you speak in a too-heavy accent, it can be ridiculous. So I didn’t want that.
What do you have coming up after “Aline”?
I’d like to do a musical, but with original songs. I’m very interested by music. I love making movies, especially getting the best of actors. But I spend a lot of time searching for songs and music. The greatest joy was when we saw that every song was perfect in the film, because it’s a love story. It’s something warm, not sad.