Famed French stand-up comedian and actress Valérie Lemercier writes, directs and acts in a faux-biopic of Céline Dion, Aline (Aline, The Voice of Love), which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. She plays Aline Dieu, a fictionalized version of the pop icon, who becomes an international sensation whilst starting a relationship with her manager.
Our film editor caught up with Valérie Lemercier to talk about how Aline avoids the typical biopic format, and functions as both a whimsically comedic fantasy and loving homage of Dion’s life.
What was the moment when you thought to yourself: “I’m going to make a faux-biopic about Céline Dion”?
It’s when I saw Céline Dion make her first appearances without her husband (René Angélil, who passed away in 2016) and it struck me, moved me. That was the moment when I started to think about the person beyond the singer, the woman behind this larger-than-life icon, and the widow she had become. I wanted to do something that spoke about her and I started telling people about this idea. And the set decorator from my previous film, Marie-Francine, heard about this and told me she wanted to absolutely be a part of this project. Then I was stuck – I had to do it! (Laughs)
Were you always a Céline Dion fan?
Before seeing her live, I knew her catalogue, but I wasn’t too familiar with her childhood songs or her English repertoire – apart from the Titanic song, naturally! I quickly familiarised myself with these songs, watched all the interviews that are readily available to everyone online, and I read an enormous number of books on her, specifically books that had only been released exclusively in Quebec. Books about him, and about her mother… Those books were the most interesting. I kept on getting the impression I was pulling on a thread and the more I pulled, the more there was. To this day, I’m not tired or fed up with discovering more, watching more footage of her, and speaking about this film.
What is it about her that compels you still?
She’s so funny and the first to parody herself. She’s wonderful in interviews and feels completely natural and candid. It’s rare when it comes to celebrities. Of course, there are always ego-driven moments, moments when you can lose yourself to anger, drugs or alcohol, or times when things get too much, because it is a very destabilizing profession. But she’s never fallen into these traps, probably because of her family, her husband, and her own personal strength. I see her as a very positive heroine.
There are so many biopics about musicians and artists that feel shackled by the singer’s estate or that come off as sanitised hagiographies which either whitewash or seem risk-averse. Was the idea of making the central protagonist a fantasized version of Céline Dion a way of avoiding these pitfalls and getting more control and liberty in the story you wanted to tell?
Liberty, yes, but not control. It was never my ambition to control anything. I wanted to be able to remain faithful to Céline’s story and to also invent certain things, and therefore maintain a certain respectful distance from her. If I was my face on a poster with the words ‘Céline Dion’ above it, I would be ashamed! She’s alive, she’s younger than I am, and ten thousand times more famous… I needed it to be about Aline Dieu, and I changed all the names of the other protagonists. I wanted to give the scent of a life. I didn’t want it to be a documentary or a clunky Wikipedia entry. The film was never intended to be a realistic portrayal, and because of that, I had the liberty to switch some things around for metaphorical usage, to create some images and more bizarre moments that were a bit more cinematographic and humorous. For example, she never left her family house through the window prior to her wedding because the dress was too big – that was me wanting a metaphor. Dion’s mother was bothered about the age difference between her daughter and her soon-to-be husband, but she never confronted him in person – she wrote him a letter. That’s not terribly good on screen – it’s much better to see her in a dressing gown, heading to the casino where he famously loved to gamble, and confront him by stopping the roulette table!
“I didn’t want to imitate her and I didn’t want to make an imitation of her voice. It’s her body that struck me, so I tried to move like Céline.”
Dion’s songs are present throughout the film – was it difficult getting the rights for her catalogue?
Well, considering she didn’t write the songs she sings – apart from a few private ones – it was actually quite easy. We didn’t get the rights to the songs sung by Dion herself, but we got the rights if the songs were sung by another artist, which was great in order to take a further step back, as we were telling the story of Aline and not Céline. We got all the songs we asked for, except one, ‘The Power of Love’.
It’s strange that that’s the one you didn’t get, as Aline is released in some territories as ‘Aline, The Voice of Love’ and ‘Aline, The Power of Love’ was a working title for the US market…
As long as they didn’t remove the ‘Aline’ from the title, I don’t mind. As for ‘The Power of Love’, that wouldn’t make much sense without the rights to the song! (Laughs) But I think ‘The Voice of Love’ is quite a nice title!
The songs are interpreted by French singer Victoria Sio in the film, and the result is quite uncanny. Was the lip-synching difficult as a discipline to learn?
Not really, as Victoria sang the songs over the film once it was all filmed. I had to lip-synch but it was more of a challenge for her, as she had to sing for my mouth, my breathing patterns and movements. However, I was with her in the recording studio, from dusk till dawn, while she was performing each song for the film. I was telling her: “In this scene, she’s singing for her mother… In this scene, she’s belting it out for her son… Here, she’s scared of losing him…” It was like being with a fellow actor – I was directing in person, close to the performer. And when you’re singing, you have to put so much of yourself into the performance. I didn’t want Victoria to do any imitations or a parody of Céline Dion. I wanted her to put her heart into it, and that’s not easy when the songs are complicated to render and so well known.
How many songs did you re-record?
I think it was 16 in total. It took a lot of time, but it was vital to get right. Victoria also had an American coach for the songs in English, a Québécois coach for the songs where you can hear a slight accent… I think this process of recording the songs, mixing them and superimposing them onto the images was the most difficult task – it was a completely new language for me to learn, a new skill to grapple with.
Beyond reading many books about Dion and her family, how did you negotiate portraying Céline / Aline?
I watched many performances of her. When I look at people, I find it quite easy – and fun – to imitate them. Sometimes in my stand-up shows, I do people that I’ve only met for an hour. It seems to be enough for me. For Céline, I didn’t want to imitate her and I didn’t want to make an imitation of her voice. It’s her body that struck me, so I tried to move like Céline. She’s a fighter, and has so much determination and perseverance, so I did a lot of boxing training and lost a lot of weight. That was important, as I’m really not a fighter – when there’s a problem, I scarper! (Laughs) Thanks to her, I got the impression that I learned how to fight! And then it was all about details – Céline always holds her microphone in her left hand, so even if the film is called ‘Aline’, I wanted to get these seemingly small aspects right.
You also play the lead character as a child. It took me a few seconds to realise that it wasn’t an impressively canny casting coup but your entire body shrunk down to give the impression of you as a little girl! What was the reason behind playing her at all ages?
I love playing kids! I do it all the time in my stand-up shows, so why not on film? (Laughs) Essentially, I took the role as a lawyer of sorts – I was defending the character and I didn’t want someone else playing this small girl with crooked teeth and too much hair. I wanted that to be me, so that when she does transform into a prettier young woman, it works because you’ve seen me before as a younger version of her. If I had cast three or four children to play her at different ages, it wouldn’t have been the same effect. Plus, kids can only work a limited amount of hours per day, while I’m doing 18-hour days! The young version of Aline spoke to me. I was the same at school – I wasn’t one of the pretty ones. She isn’t in the film for that long, but I couldn’t give the maladroit, gauche young girl to anyone else. I’d much rather have given the glamorous older woman to someone else!
It’s an effect that contributes to the a slightly surreal, fairy-tale nature of the film. When you were writing the film with Brigitte Buc, was the goal always to create this humoristic homage that teetered on the fairy-tale / love story genre?
Yes, it has many fantastical elements but it is first and foremost a fairy-tale. The destiny of this woman was improbable – she is a child that wasn’t meant to be, so the mother does 20 times as much for her compared to the others, and she knew it. She clung onto life and embraced it with both hands, thanking her mother every day. It is the making of a fairy-tale. Her mother wanted to be an artist and lived that dream through her daughter. Dion wanted to be a star and when she fell in love, she pursued the relationship and had the strength and the will to make her desires a reality. As for him, he was lost until he met her – he was thinking of quitting his job as a manager, as he wasn’t representing any more artists… When he met her, he mortgaged his house in order to make her first record. Nothing was too good for her. These three people saved each other in many ways, creating this big dream together.
Also adding to the dreamlike fairy-tale feel are the temporal ellipsis, which are so subtle…
Yes, I was inspired by Le Fabuleux Déstin d’Amélie Poulain, which I watched again after a long time, and I loved the ellipses in this film. I liked the way seasons change by focusing on simple images – and this felt better than more formal, more rigid temporal shifts that you see in many other biopics.
“I’d really like to know what Céline thinks about the film one day, and I hope she’ll see that we were careful and respectful with this story.”
Have you been in touch with Céline Dion, before, during, or after filming?
Never. I could have had a few minutes with her before a gig, but I didn’t go. I think I would have been frustrated to meet her surrounded by an entourage, and to take a photo that would have been used for the promotion of the film, where people would have seen how little we look alike… I’d love to meet her one day for more than a few minutes. I did send the script to her French manager, and she gave her approval, saying it didn’t mock her.
Do you know if she’s seen the film?
No, she hasn’t seen it yet. She’s been having a few health problems recently, so I think it’s the least of her concerns right now. Plus, I think she’s not really aware of who I am. I’m not really that well known outside of France and in Quebec. People may know me from Les Visiteurs, but that’s it. But I’d really like to know what she thinks about the film one day and I hope she’ll see that we were careful and respectful with this story and that we made a beautiful film.
I was a bit taken aback when the film, which is a very loving and kind homage, incurred the ire of certain members of Dion’s family. Two of her siblings were vocal about the film, labelling it as disrespectful. Were you surprised or upset about this at all?
What surprised me was that they considered the portrayal of the family as disrespectful, that I had apparently shown them as being dirty and shown their household as being dirty. It was a modest household, but I never showed them as living in squalor. They also took offence at certain details, like the scene I mentioned earlier where Aline leaves the house through the window to go to her wedding… I can’t reveal their names, as some of the family have chosen not to speak out publicly about the film, but they messaged me telling me they loved it. What I want to say is that it was never my intention to tarnish their name – if they knew how much care I put into the images, the costumes, the sound, making sure that the family members were endearing… We constantly asked ourselves how we could be both faithful and inventive in a way to maintain respect for Céline and her life. So, yes, I did find some of comments a little strange…
Especially because the French media don’t hold back when it comes mocking Céline Dion. I’m thinking in particular about certain imitators like Laurent Gerra, who frequently do skits about her and her life, and don’t go easy on her…
Laurent Gerra calls René Angélil “le congelé” (literally: ‘the frozen one’, in reference to his death). It’s very violent, when you think about it. And in Quebec, it’s even worse. I’ve seen sketches that were really trash, cruel and deeply unfunny. When I started making the film, many people were saying “Oh great, we’re going to have a laugh at Céline…”, and it’s really not the case. I was so mindful of every character’s dignity, so I can’t deny that some negative reactions on the family’s part did stun me somewhat. However, I do understand that it’s delicate for them, and that the fact it’s a film made by a French woman about someone from Quebec can be frustrating. Maybe they wouldn’t have reacted like that had the filmmaker been Québécois…
Before our time runs out, I have to ask – do you have a favourite Céline Dion song?
Je sais pas.
No, no, it’s not that I don’t know – I mean the song, ‘Je sais pas’! (Laughs) What about you?
‘Pour que tu m’aimes encore’, without a doubt.
Solid choice. If ever I meet Céline, I’ll be sure to tell her!