Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Of the many, many movies that have been repeatedly delayed over the past two years, there is one I have anticipated with unrivaled curiosity. No, not James Bond or Dune or West Side Story. Those films — while worthy of our waits — are all missing one crucial element necessary to truly demand our return to the cinema: legendary Quebecois singer Aline Dieu.
Our journey to Aline was first announced in January 2019, when it was reported that French actress and director Valérie Lemercier would be making a film then-titled The Power of Love, about “Aline, a young woman who grows up in a large Canadian family, is discovered as a major talent in her teens, becomes a global sensation and experiences the tragedy of losing her husband.”
The article also noted, of course, that Aline (as the film would later be renamed) would be a (very) thinly veiled take on the life of Céline Dion (Lemercier said she wanted to change the name so she could take more creative freedoms). Shooting later that year in Canada, France, Spain and Las Vegas, it quickly became a hugely anticipated event for Dion fans, particularly when it was learned that while not featuring her name, the film would include many actual Dion songs. Personally, my interest wasn’t truly piqued until I learned that the 57-year-old Lemercier herself would be starring as Céline — or, er, Aline — through every stage of her life: from the age of five years old all the way to the present (Dion herself is currently 53). Not since Cats had something seemed to so madly destined to fill midnight sing-along screenings for years to come.
Unfortunately, it would take several years for Aline to finally arrive. Initially set for release in 2020, multiple delays due to the power of the pandémie pushed it to a premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, while multiple subsequent delays pushed its release in English-Canadian cinemas to … now. I saw it last week at a press screening — the first time I was in a cinema since Ontario and Quebec re-shuttered them due to Omicron. And what a way to return. While I was fully prepared to embrace Aline as a new camp classic, I was a bit surprised to find that it was also … a legitimately impressive feat in filmmaking that works as an ideal tribute to its subject.
Aline’s story begins just like Céline’s: in 1960s rural Quebec, she is welcomed as the 14th child of the “Dieu” family (her parents are played by Danielle Fichaud and Roc Lafortune, both Quebecois actors, as is most of the cast outside of Lemercier) and is quickly discovered to have a golden voice when, at five years old, she sings at her sibling’s wedding. Cut to her teens, and Aline’s family is determined to help her fulfill her dream of becoming the greatest singer in the world — so they go to Montreal find her a manager. That manager is of course not René Angélil but “Guy-Claude Kamar” (Sylvain Marcel), though the much-scrutinized narrative that follows remains the same: Guy-Claude helps make Aline a megastar, they fall in love shortly after she turns 18 (much to her family’s initial disgust) and they remain together until Guy-Claude’s death in 2016. And Aline covers basically everything you’d expect in between: their lavish wedding, Eurovision, Titanic, bumping her chest at the Oscars, the Vegas residency, etc.
While that all sounds like a very standard approach to a biopic, save the changed names, Aline feels quite singular, in large part to the staggering commitment on the part of Lemercier. To direct yourself is one thing; to do so when you are playing one of the world’s most famous people over the course of 50 years of her life is very much another.
“For a long time we didn’t think it would work,” Lemercier said at the Cannes Film Festival last year. “During our preparation, my director of photography said to me: ‘Listen, you should do this onstage — it would be so much simpler!’ Because I wanted my entire body to appear on screen, even in the scene where five-year-old Aline sings at her sister’s wedding.”
It shouldn’t work. Lemercier’s face never really changes, whether she’s playing Aline at 12 or 45. But if you allow yourself to lean into the insanity of what the film is trying to pull off, it doesn’t really matter. Aline knows how campy and goofy it is (one case in point: when Guy-Claude first meets the singer, he mistakenly calls her Céline and is corrected: “No, it’s not Céline — it’s Aline!”) and, more importantly, it knows that one of the things we all love about Céline is how campy and goofy she is. Lemercier’s performance and direction embodies that with such consciousness that it feels like the ultimate gift to Dion’s biggest fans. And by including Eurovision and a performance of “Un garçon pas comme les autres (Ziggy),” as well as making Aline’s gay makeup artist her main confidant and a primary supporting character, it’s clear the film also knows the demographic of a sizeable portion of those fans.
Aline is already a huge hit in France, where it opened at the top of the box office this past November before being nominated for 10 César Awards (the French equivalent to the Oscars) last month. The excitement surrounding the release over here has felt a little muted (at least outside Quebec), surely in part due to societal burnout and how shutdowns have been more strict toward cinemas in Canada than basically anywhere else. But a new day has come, and if you feel ready to make your return to moviegoing, Aline beckons to fill your soul and drown your fears.
Aline is currently playing in its original version all over Quebec, and with English subtitles in Regina, Saskatoon, Victoria and Hamilton. It opens this Friday in Toronto and expands elsewhere through February.
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