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Celine Dion is a captivating powerhouse who has solidified her status as an international treasure over the past four decades by repeatedly turning out love-soaked power ballads and more than a handful of bops. The plucky performer has weathered professional and devastating personal challenges with wit and wisdom, maintaining a marriage, family, and career during that time. Unfortunately, her cinematic counterpart proves far less remarkable in Aline, a passionate yet perfunctory unofficial biopic chronicling the superstar’s meteoric rise. Though director and star Valérie Lemercier treats her subject with absolute reverence (using her music, if not her name), the film itself lacks the poignancy and effortless virtuosity that the real Dion possesses in spades.
The French-language feature is bookended by “Ordinaire,” a reflective, melancholic ballad that captures the psyche of a pop singer wrestling with the conflict between her personal yearnings and the public’s adoration. The song’s meaning matures and evolves in parallel with the story of the title character: Aline (Lemercier) grows up as the youngest of 14 children in a financially strapped Quebec household, commanding the stage even as a toddler (jarringly portrayed by either by a “shrunken down” Lemercier or a real kid stunt double, depending on the shot) in her family’s locally renowned band.
It’s not until Aline’s tween years (played again by Lemercier) that her life changes dramatically, when her supportive but cautious mom Sylvette (Danielle Fichaud) decides the gifts possessed by her 12-year-old daughter with stringy hair, bad teeth, and crooked smile should be shared with the world. Sylvette enlists her eldest son to reach out to a producer/ talent manager friend, Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), catapulting Aline into the arms of a music-industry Svengali to map out a career path when she becomes an overnight sensation. After garnering her fans of all ages, she takes a hiatus at Guy-Claude’s request in order to get a makeover, and hone her dancing and language skills. She subsequently unveils her new, improved self to her future paramour in a campy, cringe-inducing scene that shifts the film’s focus from her career choices and individual empowerment to a regressive love story between this young superstar and a much older man.
Lemercier and co-writer Brigitte Buc, who together garnered a César nomination for Best Screenplay, fashioned their portrait primarily as a love letter to a couple who defied the media’s gossip-mongering glare. But the movie isn’t called Aline And Guy-Claude, and that shift betrays the more compelling story of a woman striving to fulfill two sometimes contradictory pursuits: a successful marriage and supernova-like career. Consequently, Aline comes to be primarily defined in the film by her relationship to the men in her life—starting with her husband, but later three sons, her father Anglomard (Roc Lafortune), and makeup artist Fred (Jean-Noël Brouté).
Worse is the fact that both central characters lack complexity. Although we at least learn about Aline through the adversity she faces with infertility and the many sacrifices she makes to repair her vocal cords, Guy-Claude’s defining quality outside of falling for his much younger protegé is a heart condition. The film’s treatment of her career further makes her, and by extension the audience, a spectator to her accomplishments: Business opportunities such as Aline’s Vegas residency or the opportunity to sing Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” seem to materialize out of thin air. And a telegraphed, cloyingly constructed finale seems more borrowed from the recent version of A Star Is Born than Dion’s own life, dramatically dulling its emotional impact with manufactured theatricality.
Then of course there’s the generous age disparity between the Aline and her husband, which is based in fact but is depicted in a way that inspires more than a few questions about the practice—intentional or not—of grooming young artists. Guy-Claude ingratiates himself into Aline’s large family, nurtures her confidence about her appearance, and then encourages her to alter it under the guise of facilitating her career aspirations. Lemercier mines this as a mostly comical source of conflict between Aline and her mother as the young singer begins to (perhaps ironically) achieve some independence from her family, but some audience members may be squirming during these scenes instead of laughing.
Lemercier’s commitment as both a performer and filmmaker is palpable, and despite some budget-compromised green screen sequences and concert recreations, she demonstrates a breezy visual dexterity with sequences like the one where Aline is first shown in a pool with her baby in her belly, and then later on her belly. She and cinematographer Laurent Dailland shoot the picture with a delightful playfulness, mirroring her fictionalized protagonist’s humorous, unshakable attitude. And especially the zany, surrealist bent of the first act—whose timing is rhythmically shaped by editor Jean-François Elie—evokes Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s colorfully attuned romanticism.
But Lemercier’s boldest choice is to present Dion as a regular person clinging to her humble beginnings while still breathing the rarified air of superstardom. That juxtaposition between the mundane and the magnificent—helping Guy-Claude with his medications while on a private plane, hiding her father’s gold coin in her shoe at the Oscars, or hoarding sugar packets in high-end designer purses—is more hilarious than humanizing. Having her own Beyoncé-style “hot sauce in her bag” story unquestionably makes Celine Dion seem relatable to her fans, but Aline’s superficial, glossy read of this magnetic dynamo glosses over her true super powers.