Aline Writer/Director/Star Valérie Lemercier On Her Version Of Celine Dion's Life [Interview]

Celine Dion is the best-selling Canadian artist and French language artist of all time. With musician biopics like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Rocketman," and the upcoming "Elvis" being potentially huge moneymakers for Hollywood studios, it's no surprise that Dion would be on the list for that treatment as well. However, the new French language film "Aline" isn't quite the same as the others. According to the trailer, this is "a fiction freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion," and the phrase "freely inspired" only scratches the surface of what's happening here.

Valérie Lemercier wrote, directed, and stars in "Aline," playing the title character as a child (with the help of digital de-aging) through her life now, running the gamut from ages five to 50. I got a chance to speak to Lemercier about what inspired the film, the choice to play Aline at every age, whether or not Dion was okay with it, and how much money she won while shooting a scene in Las Vegas.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

'A fiction freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion'

So how did this film come about to begin with?

I think it began when I saw René's [Angélil - Celine Dion's husband] funeral on TV as millions of people did, and I felt the sudden loneliness of Celine. I don't know. I feel very touched by that. Walking with a child and very strong. I didn't know as much that love story, but reading a lot of books, watching a lot of documentaries about her, I thought it's the main thing of her life.

So the main thing of my life, when I saw old movies I've made 20 years ago, the problem is not the movies. Was I happy at that time? Was I in love? I mean, it's about something in life, I think, that you remember, and very, very quickly, the love story was the main story of Celine's "Aline" story.

Did you ever approach Celine Dion's people to see if you could do this?

Yes. I approached the French manager who was very close to Celine, and I gave them the script very early, and she read it in the plane going to see Celine, and said, "Oh, I saw it as you love her and it will be great." And she was happy about it.

But Celine didn't want to read this script. She wanted to stay away, as she does a lot. She didn't want to see the picture, the actor that was chosen to play the part. At that time, she never saw the movie. And if I were Celine, I understand. I hope one time before my death, she will watch it.

You did so much on this film. You wrote it, you directed it, you starred in it, but you didn't sing, and I know you're a singer. So can you tell me about that decision?

Oh, no. Because she's one of the five most beautiful voices of the world with Maria Callas and Barbra Streisand, and I'm not on her level. I'm sorry, but I can sing, but not Olympic, really. [laughs] We were lucky because we found 50 singers, and we chose four. And one was the good one, Victoria [Sio], who is the voice of the movie. Yeah. But she has a lot of octaves, and she knows how to sing, and it's not my case. I'm sorry. I'm not that talented.

'I couldn't play a little girl without my body, without my hands'

You chose to play her through her entire life. Was there ever a time where you didn't want to do that or was that always the plan?

It's like if I'm a lawyer, and my client, I didn't want to send my assistant to make the bad words. I mean, when she's, for example, in the dentist, to play the growing pains of adolescence, I want to take it up myself because I was not, as Celine, a beautiful little girl, and this thing touched me. 

And I didn't want also to put a young girl in the bed with René de-clothed. And I think she was more agile than — René said that the first time when they met, he said "I was shy, but she was not." So she was a sort of small adult very young, and she fell in love very young. And I think that the age difference is more easy to understand, also.

I'm older than my husband. I'm three months older. And I like to play child. I do that on the stage a lot, and it's not my old head on the baby's body. It's all me: My hands, my body. We [deage] me and, of course, put off the wrinkles and everything. But I couldn't play a little girl without my body, without my hands. So it's something I like to play, and then maybe it could be strange. I think that in France we are used to it, and maybe for you, it's a little bit strange thing.

I'm curious about what it was like to do those scenes, though. You've got all these actors who are your height, and then you're playing this young girl. So what was that experience like?

Often, I was not with them. I was alone and playing with tennis balls, and they were alone without me. And the difficulty was we have to play — in every sequence, sometimes we were separate. So, we have to imagine. Yeah.

'It's a mix of something funny and something melodramatic'

There is a really fun joke in here about her being called Celine the first time. Did you want to put more in there? Because that was really funny. I liked that.

No. One time. Because of course, we sing to Celine, so I wanted to make a joke about that because she's not exactly. But, yeah. I like to put humor. I saw in this something more melodramatic sometimes than a comedy. It's a mix of something funny and something melodramatic. Yeah.

The first time she sings for Guy-Claude [the René character], we don't actually hear her sing. So I was curious why, because she does sing through the whole movie. Why did you make that decision?

Because the first song that the mother wrote is very long to come. It's not as touching as "Nature Boy." That was made in studio, and I built the desk, the workshop, specifically to put the camera up behind the glasses, to not be in on the desk and to be a way to have another song. It was in the script, I mean. I didn't want to hear that song, because when she stopped, you can spend something like 45 seconds before to say the real sentence. And it's too long for a movie. That is the first love song that we hear in the movie, the famous "Nature Boy."

The costumes are so spectacular, all of the dresses. Were there specific ones you wanted to include?

Well, we've made 180 costumes for me, and in the movie, I think now it's something like 150. But we've made a lot on me, especially. What was very good to build that movie, is that we were in the same place. We had the desk for the wigs, another one for the dresses, another one for the casting ... When a dress was finished, the crew was with us to see the dress, to see the difference of when it was the '80s and the '90s, and then it was very funny to do that. And I spent a lot of time with the costume director, Catherine Leterrier, because I love that. Not only mine, but also the other costumes.

'Maybe the most joyful shooting I've ever spent'

Were there specific little things that you found out about her during your research that you wanted to include? I noticed the little hand movements [between Aline and Guy-Claude].

Yes. They had a special thing with them. It wasn't exactly the same, but the thing was so incredible for me was when she said one time to a journalist who was speaking about a good hotel in Las Vegas, and she said, "What are you talking about? I've never put a finger outside." In fact, she spent 16 years playing in Caesar's Palace without [going outside], because she couldn't. She's too famous.

She liked to be home with the child. That's why I made the Las Vegas sequence in the street in the morning, because when I arrive in the town, I'm me, I could do it. She couldn't, but I go. I wake up at five in the morning, and I like to see the town in the early morning like that. And we were really in Las Vegas and beginning the shooting at four in the morning. I went to the casino. It was the first time I played the casino. I was cold. It was night. It was four o'clock and I wait in a sort of casino, and I play $20 and I win $100, so it was very difficult for me to be sad on the street because I was so happy to win. I had to hide my happiness. 

We were shooting in four countries. It was maybe the most expensive movie I've ever directed. Another one was "Palais Royal!" about Lady Diana, maybe 12, 15 years ago. But this one was more spectacular, but maybe the most joyful shooting I've ever spent.

"Aline" will hit theaters on April 8, 2022.