You know who does a really great Céline Dion? Kathy Griffin. Typically withering in her impressions, the comedian clearly has a soft spot for the vocal superstar. She gets the singer’s French-Canadian accent, the unconventional appeal of her open-book private life and that fabulously operatic body language — one hand gesturing toward heaven, the other beating her chest — cultivated over a career of projecting her emotions, like her voice, to the very back row.
If only French actor-director Valérie Lemercier embraced Dion’s inner diva, serving up a bit more humor in her fawning, French-language portrait of the titanic talent. Instead, she has made the cinematic equivalent of “easy listening” adult contemporary music: Easy-on-the-eyes, softer-still-on-the-brain “Aline” is an unabashedly corny homage to Dion and her highly publicized romance with producer-manager René Angélil, in which 57-year-old Lemercier insists on embodying the megastar — rechristened Aline Dieu — from age 12 to present.
It’s a fearless choice at the center of the year’s most play-it-safe production, where the hairstyles change but the face never does (creepy as “The Irishman” in the early scenes but less distracting later on). “Aline” was all set for a 2020 release till the pandemic gave Lemercier opportunity to launch the film out of competition at Cannes. But this is no “Rocketman” (which played the fest in 2019) or “Bohemian Rhapsody” — worshipful hagiographies both that still found a kernel of bad-boy drama (drug use! homo sex!) in their rock-star subjects.
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Lemercier wouldn’t dare offend Dion, nor would she dream of giving fans the slightest reason to question their devotion, and so “Aline” comes off feeling like a faith-based movie, where Dieu (French for “God”) gets the reverential “lives of the saints” treatment. For those who adjust their expectations accordingly, it’s still an extremely satisfying watch — just one in which the only conflicts are convincing Aline’s parents to accept her love for manager Guy-Claude (Sylvain Marcel), the couple attempting to get pregnant and a tricky period when Aline’s vocal cords nearly give out. Suffice to say, most of the film’s tears are those of joy.
The movie doesn’t need to go looking for hints of scandal or misbehavior to be interesting, but there’s something inherently anti-dramatic in someone with a Dieu-given talent, the youngest of 14 kids, being discovered before she was old enough for braces, impressing everyone who hears her voice, marrying the man of her dreams and earning a residency at Caesars Palace. The closest “Aline” comes to making the character seem vulnerable (past the age of 12, at least) is a touching scene just after Guy-Clarke’s death, when we learn that after all those years of playing Vegas, she’s never stepped foot outside the casino.
Americans have a different notion of Céline Dion from her European fans (who discovered the singer early, after she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988), linked more to a handful of massively popular movie themes and mid-’90s English power ballads than her French-language hits. The latter make up the majority of those Lemercier lip syncs here (the heavy lifting done by cover soprano Victoria Sio, who has the range but not the coloratura-style curlicues that make Dion’s live performances so impressive).
In the U.S., Dion’s slightly comical accent enhances her charm. Turns out, the same is true in France, only there, they’re amused by how she speaks (and sings) her native language, the mirroring of which comprises a huge part of Lemercier’s performance — the other being hairdos and body language. Surrounding herself almost entirely with Canadian actors, Lemercier does sound the part, in French at least, although it would’ve been at least as fun to watch someone like Mike Myers give it a shot.
“Aline” may be a “fiction freely inspired” by Dion’s life, but apart from shuffling when certain singles fall in the hitmaker’s career, Lemercier doesn’t allow herself all that much artistic license. When Céline told René that she was pregnant, she didn’t doodle the news in a bowl of carrot puree the way Aline does in the movie. Sure, it’s cuter this way, but the scene hardly qualifies as a bold act of invention.
A long way from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Judy,” “Aline” is no deeper than one of Dion’s songs, but there, it’s the heartfelt delivery that matters, convincing listeners that she’s singing directly to them. Lemercier and co-writer Brigitte Buc set out to amplify the fairy-tale love story of it all by taking the slightly icky Svengali age difference between Céline and René and making it the most normal thing in the world. (And if “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” could eliminate any judgment around Elton and Freddie’s bisexuality, then surely audiences can look past whatever seems unconventional about this couple — especially when the underage Aline’s face looks like that of a Photoshopped 50-something.)
It’s Aline’s parents — force of nature Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud, a scene-stealer) and fuddy-duddy Anglomard (Roc Lafortune, like a Canadian Richard Jenkins) — who need convincing, though they’re supportive in every other respect … which again, makes this a race-to-the-top success story with precious few speed bumps along the way.
There’s great fun to be had in watching Lemercier re-create Dion’s round-the-world performances, from awkward 1980s TV appearances to the purpose-built Caesars amphitheater (minus the Cirque du Soleil-like touches Kathy Griffin teased so well). In one invented scene, voice trouble forces Aline to cut her performance short — and the adoring audience steps up and sings for her. It’s a cleverly effective “I am Spartacus” moment, and one that captures the dopily uplifting spirit of “Aline” perfectly: Yes, this is a film for Céline Dion’s fans, but in many ways, it feels as if it were crafted for an audience of one, and that Lemercier seeks Dion’s approval above all.