In early 2022 a peculiar challenge took over TikTok that, since, has become one of its most emulated trends. Celebrities like Mandy Moore and Michael Bublé, non-famous people from all over the world, and even a pet or two have taken part in the “Céline Dion challenge,” wherein they are invited to lipsync the chorus of her 1996 hit “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” in the most dramatic fashion possible. Living rooms are transformed into dreamlike stages using easy-to-find props, women and men of all ages leaving behind their humdrum lives for a second as they reveal glittery outfits that turn them into global divas—all of course with the assistance of friends, lovers, and family members who act as stagehands and makeup / wardrobe assistants. Although the look of the challenge varies from post to post, they all share one thing: a profound sense of love and awe for the magic Dion performs so well.
In many ways Aline, Valérie Lemercier’s biopic inspired by the life of Céline, is the ultimate attempt at the Dion challenge. I state this as the highest compliment. For over three decades Dion has made a mark in the music industry with her glorious voice (she often reaches Everest-high notes), rags-to-riches ascension, and unique personality. Existing somewhere between utter sincerity and performance art, Dion’s personality comes across as quirky yet serious, reserved but playful, and oftentimes impossible to crack. In spite of availability to press and fans, she remains an enigma.
Perhaps tempted to crack the mystery, Lemercier co-wrote, directed, and starred in this beautiful oddity where she embodies Aline Dieu from ages five to 50, and then over. Dieu shares everything with Dion but a name. Both are shown as child prodigies whose larger-than-life voices set them apart from their siblings in an enormous Quebecian family; both fall in love with their manager who more than doubles their age; both become superstars renowned for their commitment to both craft and public.
Those familiar with Dion’s biography will find Aline works as a greatest hits version of her life; those not in the know will most likely experience it as a strange biopic where fact and fiction become dance partners.
Lemercier’s thorough character study sets off from what appears to be the thesis that Dion arrived into the world as a fully embodied being. Which is not to say she born an adult, but that her essence wasn’t malleable—it arrived defined, ready to conquer the world. In the universe of Aline it makes no sense that any other actor should, could play a younger Dieu. In a purely theatrical nod, we see Lemercier digitally reduced to a child’s size, then transform into a teenager, a 20-something, and so on.
Though initially difficult to suspend our disbelief, it soon becomes clear that Lemercier’s purpose is to pay tribute rather than criticize (even question) Dion. The screenplay written with Brigitte Buc doesn’t dig too deep into the idea of grooming, given the age difference between Dieu and her manager-turned-lover (Sylvain Marcel), but it doesn’t ignore this either. Instead it centers this as a love story for the ages—Dieu’s ages.
Lemercier, as director, avoids audience scrutiny by moving the action along with the efficiency of a ’90s pop producer. Aline is in a constant state of metamorphosis, which serves two purposes: it doesn’t allow us to dwell in icky matters, and in many ways emulates the way we perceive the life of Dion and other superstars. Without mentioning them explicitly Lemercier approaches themes of aging, mortality, and the fickleness of popularity by showing us the gloss, inviting us to ponder how people like Dieu get to exist as themselves when their work constantly demands performance.
In one of the most touching scenes, a stressed Dieu decides to roam the streets of Las Vegas, where she’s set to perform, and runs into posters and billboards of herself, as well as fans who fail to recognize they have the real thing in front of them. Lemercier doesn’t imagine many of these quieter, intimate moments; with what she chooses to show us we understand she’s granting the gift of this privacy to the real Dion.
The film is framed by bookends in song-form where, morality-play-style, the introduction and lesson are provided to make sure we understand this is a sort of opera. Despite being an unauthorized biopic we get plenty of Dion’s original songs, and Lemercier has a ball recreating moments like her performance at the 1998 Academy Awards, where she performed Titanic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.”
It’s watching Lemercier as Dieu as Dion in the musical sequences that we get a glimpse at the innermost life of these women. We understand that through art and performance they have found a way to embody their life mission. Although Lemercier isn’t a Dion doppelgänger, in the scenes where she lip syncs and moves to Dion’s tunes, she embodies that divinely picaresque energy Dion radiates. And just like a TikTok rabbit hole of Dion challenges, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.
Aline opens in theaters on April 8.