Valérie Lemercier wasn't all that serious when she pledged during an interview to make her next film about Celine Dion. But the more the French comedian and filmmaker kept thinking about it, the more the pop diva's life spoke to her.
"I always loved love stories," she says over videoconference from an all-pink room in her country home in Normandy.
Borrowing liberally from Dion's life, career and marriage to her decades-older manager, René Angélil, with just enough creative detours to claim artistic license, Lemercier directs herself in the musical drama "Aline" as Aline Dieu, who goes from the youngest of 14 in a close-knit French Canadian clan to world-famous chanteuse on the Last Vegas strip. Lemercier's Dieu commands the screen with numbers pulled from the real-life Dion's songbook, including "Let's Talk About Love," "All By Myself" and, yes, "My Heart Will Go On."
"Celine couldn't do a show without singing that song, which is a small jail," says Lemercier, who mounted an exhaustive search to find a Dion vocal double in singer Victoria Sio, and lends a humorous spin to the "Titanic" moment in Aline's fictional rise to stardom. "People want that one."
The film grabbed headlines out of Cannes last year thanks to Lemercier's many auteurist conceits, not the least of which is that the 58-year-old writer, director and star portrays Aline from ages 5 to 50. Using George Méliès-inspired camera tricks and face-shrinking VFX, she plays the future superstar as an awkward young girl and gawky teenager with a booming voice that can't be denied. Later, as a young adult, Aline falls for her manager and future husband, Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel).
The performance earned Lemercier her third César Award, this one for lead actress and nominations for best film, director and original screenplay (with Brigitte Buc), in addition to "Aline" nominations for supporting actor (Marcel), supporting actress (Danielle Fichaud) and sound. Ahead of the film's stateside opening on April 8, Lemercier dove into a conversation about the making of "Aline," the power of Celine, who in recent years has canceled performance dates due to health issues, and the one hit song from Dion's discography she wasn't able to clear.
It's easy for people to be cynical about Celine Dion because she sings power ballads about love and has a big, earnest personality. What did you want to convey about her in film?
I wanted to make an homage. I wanted to say that I love Celine. I want to say that I admire Celine and René, of course, and her Québécois family. I have a lot of similitude with the younger Celine. I was from a big family with a lot of kids. I have cousins on a farm in Normandy, and we were supposed to play music, all of us. I'm often asked why I wanted to play it young. I didn't want to play it only as a glamorous star. I wanted also to play the growing pains of adolescence.
What has your relationship with Celine Dion been over the years?
It was in '95 with maybe the best French album, which is "D'eux" — a girl in the theater where I was performing loved Celine, and she said that we looked alike, that we have the same face. She was singing the same song and changing the name and saying "Valérie" instead. I begin my story of Celine with another person singing Celine. And of course, I heard a lot of the songs, but I didn't know her career, her life and everything very well. Then six years ago, after René passed away, I said like a joke, "for my next movie I will make a movie about Celine." My production designer heard that and said to me, "I want to be a part of it." Then I wanted to make it.
This story is closely modeled on Dion's life, down to her marriage to her older manager and her songs. How do you view the differences between Celine Dion and Aline Dieu?
Aline is between Celine and me. Could be "Valine"... maybe Aline is more French if you speak very well with a Quebecois accent — you can say that mine is not very good. I decided to [focus on] the love story because for me, it's the most important thing in life. When I see old movies that I've made, I remember where I had been, was I in love, who was my lover at that moment — it's the only thing you remember at the end. For me, it's the most important thing.
The age difference between Celine and René was controversial, even to her mother. How did you decide to handle that in "Aline?"
If I cast a little girl, a 12-year-old girl, I think it would be more of a problem for the movie. In France, kid [actors] are very protected. But remember, we [Lemercier and co-star Marcel] are each 55. I mean yes, the first relation began when she was 20. And at 20 you are able to choose. She was in love first. And I think you can see that in the movie that René at first doesn't want anything to do with a love story.
You co-wrote the script with your collaborator Brigitte Buc, with care to replicate Celine's life, music, outfits and performances in painstaking detail. How did you begin?
I began to write it alone, 80 pages, without Brigitte. At first, it said "Celine" and "René." She said "change the name. Everything will be easier." She didn't know Celine as well as me, because I spent a lot of time watching videos and reading books. Night and day, I spent maybe one year [researching] the story and also Quebec's story and old Quebecois songs. Of course, it's a movie about Celine, but it's also about Quebecois family and songs because in Quebec, music is a real culture.
Was it difficult to find financiers for a film like this?
It was. Because people thought that it would be possible only with Celine's voice. We also had to reduce the [budget] because the movie was longer. We had thought at first to make one French version and one English, with more English songs. In the end, it's the same movie everywhere. But it was difficult for me to get the French producer to accept unknown actors from Quebec. For example, Aline's mother (Danielle Fichaud) is wonderful. She is known for being an acting teacher, but she's not famous. And the TV channels who put money in the movie wanted I [to] do it all with French actors doing a Quebecois accent. It was not so simple at first, no.
You portray Aline at age 5, 12 and into adulthood using camera tricks and VFX. Did that seem like a risky choice to anyone else?
My DP [Laurent Dailland] said to me, "You can do that in theater — onstage maybe, but not in the movie — it would not be possible." But that DP made a movie called "Didier" by Alain Chabat that has a French actor playing a dog! I said, "You made 'Didier!' That guy can be a dog, I can be a little girl." I'm known to perform solo on stage playing different characters, women, men, children. I'm always happy to play little girls, and maybe when I am 80, I will continue to do it. You know, my producer asked me to pull out a sequence where I began the movie at 6 months old.
Did you pull it before you filmed it?
I filmed it. My producer got down on their knees and said to me, "Please [cut] that."
I would love to see that.
Yeah, me too! I'd like to show that one time because it's really very funny.
How much did you learn of Celine's history, daily life and mannerisms from the biographies by journalist Georges-Hebert Germain?
[Germain] made a book about Celine, but also a bigger one about René and he wrote about her mother — [my] three main characters. And those three books are really, really, very important. I learned a lot of things, for example, how René was mad about Col. Parker, Elvis's manager. When he was 25, Elvis passed away, and he said that he was a journalist and went to the funeral. I think that the funeral of René looks like the Elvis one. That's why when I put some music [to René's funeral scene], I tried every Mozart requiem. When I found Elvis's "Love Me Tender," it was perfect.
The authorized biography almost defends Celine from those fans who worry for her well-being as a celebrity, even suggesting that she enjoys the stress. As a performer yourself, did you feel that perhaps this couldn't be true, that the pressure might have an effect on anybody?
Of course. I'm sure of that. And I'm sure that if she's a clown, then she has something to hide. She has, of course, a dark part and she doesn't want to show it. And that's what I love in the way she always says that she's lucky. Maybe that's what happened these two years. Maybe that's why she's not able now to make shows.
That's so much of what the story of Aline is, isn't it? Our introduction to her is her weeping on a pristine white bed, headphones on, with her children by her side. Where did that image come from?
After René's death, I saw a video. She was on the bed — a white bed, with the Kleenex, and I know that she was sleeping with the twins. For me, it was the truth of Celine at that time. The movie speaks about [the death] of René and I see the new life alone. It's the first image I wanted to begin with and the last one. I wanted at the end that she wears a white dress on a black stage and sings alone with the camera. And I wanted the first image to be her with the big Gucci eyeglasses and music on her head and the twins, crying on the bed.
And of course, the opening and closing scenes are connected by the same song, "Ordinaire," by Canadian musician Robert Charlebois. Did you always know that you wanted to use this song in these two places?
Always. In the beginning, because the movie was too expensive, they said, "Oh, don't begin with that sequence." And the script [supervisor] saw the new script without that sequence and said to me, "What a shame. It was my favorite. Why did you cut that?" I thank her every day for saying that to me, because I love that sequence and it was really important to begin the movie with that.
There's an incredible video of Celine weeping as Charlebois sings "Ordinaire" to her.
Of course, because that song speaks so much of her life! It's one of my favorite videos of Celine, because of Charlebois, because of that song. I was so happy when Charlebois said that ["Aline"] is the best love story he had ever seen. He said something which touched me. He said to me, "After René and then Mrs. Dion — Madame Mama Dion — I think you're the one who loves Celine the best." They wanted for the U.S. version that I use "Nature Boy," which is a nice song, but is in a lot of movies and sung by a lot of singers and "Ordinaire," I know it's in French, but I think that song is really universal.
The songs you selected from Celine's repertoire speak to what Aline is feeling at each moment in her life, throughout the film.
Every song is a step of the love story. First for the mother, of course, and then for [Guy-Claude] — is it love, is it amity? I wanted all the songs to speak about the love story and how she is in love. Hearing a lot of songs made me discover a lot of the beautiful songs from Quebec or from the U.S.A. that I didn't know. I wanted one that I couldn't have, which is called "Power of Love." "'Cause I'm your lady...".
"And you are my man..." A great song.
But the woman who wrote that song ... she didn't want it, so it's the only song I couldn't have.
The way you use "My Heart Will Go On" is funny. A lot of people don't realize how she felt about her biggest hit.
She didn't like this song, and James Cameron said, "I don't want a song in the movie!" What you hear in ["Titanic"] is the demo. Sometimes she laughs about it. For me, when she sang that song perfectly it was at the Oscars in '98 with that navy blue dress. She was so strong, so beautiful. It's really the golden age of Celine's voice.
Some of her family members have openly criticized the film for taking license with her life story. Does it matter to you what they think?
Of course. It was very sad for me because [of] what they said, it's the contrary of all I've done. But the family is big. I have some other messages from other people of the family who were very happy with the movie.
Do you wish that you had met Celine before making "Aline?"
I knew that if [we] met, it would only be for two minutes. I had a pass to go to her show and I didn't use it because I was sure we would not be alone. We would have three seconds to take a picture with Celine and I didn't want that. I wanted to meet, but not in that circumstance. Of course, I know that Celine doesn't want to see anything about her. She reads nothing. It's the same for my movie. Her Quebecois manager said she doesn't care, and the French one said she would cry. If it was me, I don't know if I would jump to see the movie. But I hope that that one day she will be able to to see it and to see how much I love her.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.