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Valérie Lemercier as Aline Dieu in Aline.JEAN MARIE LEROY/Courtesy of Maison 43/levelFilm

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Directed by Valérie Lemercier

Written by Valérie Lemercier and Brigitte Buc

Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel and Danielle Fichaud

Classification PG; 128 minutes

Opens at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema Feb. 11, Toronto’s Fox theatre Feb. 18

Critic’s Pick

The new, extraordinary, enchanting and totally bananas film Aline begins with a warning. Or maybe it is an enticement.

A title card appears onscreen noting that the film is “freely inspired” by the life of Céline Dion. Meaning it is not strictly speaking a movie about Céline Dion. But, well, consider the evidence.

The film follows a young Québécois singer named Aline, who comes from a family of 14 children. She becomes a world-famous pop star after becoming a client of her decades-older manager (Sylvain Marcel), whom she eventually marries. She sings several Céline Dion hits, including My Heart Will Go On. And at one point someone mistakenly calls her Céline. So …

But none of the above points matters in the grand scheme of Aline, because the most outrageous and ultimately wonderful thing about the film is how director-writer-star Valérie Lemercier chose to make it. In that: She plays Aline/Céline from the ages of five through 50. Using a deliberately (?) shoddy combination of makeup, digital effects and other post-production tricks, Lemercier plays essentially a grown woman trapped in a little girl’s body, like a French-language spin on Martin Short in Clifford. Or, well, I honestly don’t know.

It is a tremendously strange artistic decision – perhaps, generously, meant to convey some message about Dion’s old soul being attracted to manager/husband René Angélil – and it very may well repel some audiences completely. But like the best-worst Dion ballad, I embraced the operatic madness of it all.

How did this exercise in outre-ness come to exist? Lemercier says that she received permission from Dion’s French manager to make the film, and scored the rights to some of the singer’s best-known songs (though neither Dion, nor Lemercier, sing them here; all of that work is done by French singer Victoria Sio).

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Lemercier manages to make Dion/Aline’s not-terribly-dramatic hardships feel relatable and compelling.JEAN MARIE LEROY/Courtesy of Maison 43/levelFilm

Dion hasn’t publicly commented on the film. Members of her family, however, have decried the film’s portrayal of the Dion clan as looking “like a gang of Bougons,” not to mention slamming the film for its defiant lack of Québécois accents. But there is decent reason to believe that the diva herself might be in on the ultimate joke, given her self-deprecating tendencies.

Whatever Dion does or does not think of Aline, the film is a completely fascinating and absorbing thing to behold. Lemercier, whose past work in France as a professionally problematic instigator would not go over well on these shores, is clearly having a grand time aping and remixing Dion’s image. It is a portrait both reverential and subversive, with Lemercier’s performance acting as the Krazy Glue to what would otherwise be a factory-assembled rags-to-riches story.

Most impressively, Lemercier manages to make Dion/Aline’s not-terribly-dramatic hardships – she has trouble conceiving with her husband, she misses her family while on the road, she feels exhausted by her Las Vegas schedule – feel relatable and compelling. Part of that is Lemercier’s full-throttle commitment to the bit. But the actress also generates genuine chemistry with co-star Marcel, who does more to soften Angélil’s image here than a thousand Quebec newspaper op-ed mea culpas could hope to ever accomplish.

I watched Aline back in November, just before the film opened in Quebec theatres (the movie only hits a handful of English-Canadian cities this month, in a release pattern as strange as the production itself). But just thinking about Lemercier’s intense energy and madcap vision brought a wide smile to my face with the easiest of recollections. As Dion herself might sing, there were moments of gold. And there were flashes of light. It’s … all coming back to me now.

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