Somebody was always bound to do it. But by becoming the first filmmaker to produce a big-screen version of the life of Celine Dion – the Quebec-born singer who rose from local child sensation to global diva under the wing of the much-older impresario who became her husband – French director-actor Valérie Lemercier deserves credit for her sheer intrepidness.
The Canadian popular music scene has produced plenty of megastars over the decades, from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell on down to Justin Bieber and The Weeknd. But none has come close to representing for Canada what Ms. Dion represents for Quebec. Her rags-to-riches saga has made her a modern Québécois myth and a symbol of her home province’s cultural distinctness. More than anyone before her, including even René Lévesque, Ms. Dion put Quebec on the map.
For a people that has spent much of its four-century-long history longing for outside recognition of its mere existence, Ms. Dion has delivered more in that department than anyone else. Wherever she has gone – and she has gone almost everywhere on this planet – she has made sure audiences know where she is from. Québécois accent and all, she remains her province’s greatest ambassador on the global stage.
Most Quebeckers, even those not particularly enamoured of her power ballads or personality, remain understandably defensive of the diva often referred to in the francophone media as “notre Céline nationale.” The local use of the possessive determiner to describe Ms. Dion should be the first sign to any foreigner that toying with her image is not an exercise to be undertaken lightly.
So Ms. Lemercier, a popular comedic actress from France, was aware of the professional risk she was incurring in embarking on a project about Ms. Dion. Best known for parodying the rich and famous, Ms. Lemercier might have been expected to serve up a biting satire that makes fun of Ms. Dion’s unsophisticated upbringing in Charlemagne, Que., as the youngest of 14 children born to high-school dropouts Thérèse and Adhémar Dion, and her transformation by husband-manager René Angélil into a global pop star, amassing one of the biggest fortunes (and shoe collections) in show business.
But while Ms. Lemercier’s film does contain a few such jibes – at the Waltons-like banter around the Dion kitchen table and at the teenage Ms. Dion’s enormous incisors or her lack of formal education – it is above all an homage to its main subject.
To be sure, the characters in Ms. Lemercier’s film all have different names – a legal imperative more than a creative one – and the movie opens with a disclaimer describing it as a “work of fiction” that is only “inspired by the life of Celine Dion.” But what is striking is just how few artistic liberties Ms. Lemercier has taken in her cinematic rendering of Ms. Dion’s life story. Her film is a meticulously faithful – and touching – account of Quebec’s biggest success story.
Ms. Lemercier’s film, Aline, opened Nov. 10 in France to surprisingly strong – and several glowing – reviews from notoriously finicky French critics. It has topped the box office there since its release, drawing more than 900,000 spectators in its first two weeks. The French media have provided wall-to-wall coverage of the film and its stars, who, except for Ms. Lemercier, are all Québécois actors.
Film critics in Quebec, where Aline opened Nov. 26, have been equally positive. While a few have quibbled with some of the 57-year-old Ms. Lemercier’s creative choices – especially her decision to play Ms. Dion herself from the ages of seven through to 47 – no one has disputed her sincerity. Her admiration for Ms. Dion – especially her authenticity and her work ethic – is evident on screen. The film received a standing ovation at its Nov. 23 Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Place des Arts, where a who’s-who of Quebec artists, producers and celebrities turned out.
Two of Ms. Dion’s older siblings, Michel and Claudette, nevertheless tore into Ms. Lemercier last week on a popular Quebec talk show – the sister complaining that the film made the Dion clan “look like a gang of Bougons,” a reference to a defunct Radio-Canada sitcom about a family of welfare fraudsters. “Excuse me, but we didn’t live in a shack in Charlemagne and the house was always clean,” Claudette Dion told host Julie Snyder. “We always say we never knew misery because Mom knew how to do everything, and Dad had three jobs.”
While Ms. Dion herself has not commented publicly on Ms. Lemercier’s film, she has every reason to be at peace with it. The real Celine Dion is more enigmatic and eccentric than Ms. Lemercier’s film lets on. And another director might not have been as kind. But she has finally received the big-screen treatment worthy of her extraordinary achievements.
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