‘A lot of great actors aren’t exactly oil paintings’: Valérie Lemercier on her ‘horrifying’ Celine Dion biopic | Celine Dion

One of the words used most often to describe French actress and comedian Valérie Lemercier is “crazy,” but even that doesn’t quite sum up the weirdness of her latest film, Aline, just released in the UK.

In this imaginary biopic of singer Celine Dion, 58-year-old Lemercier plays the Canadian superstar at any age, even as a child, confusing and confusing critics (The Guardian called it “horrifying”).

Lemercier does not see what it is. “I really wanted to play her as a child and why not? I always play children in my shows, so it seemed completely normal to me, even if it might seem a little weird outside of France,” she says.

Not as weird as it could have been. Lemercier says she also shot a scene with her face superimposed on a baby to portray the newborn Aline. Much to his chagrin, and perhaps to the relief of the audience, it ended on the cutting room floor. “My producer begged me to take it down, so I did,” she says sadly. “We had a lot of fun creating this illusion of youth.”

Lemercier is a big name in France, where she is best known for playing what they call crazy – dippy and quirky characters. She’s had seven long-running theatrical productions, including one-woman shows, won two Césars, the French Oscars, for best supporting actress, and three Molières, the theater equivalent. She plays, sings, dances, writes screenplays, directs and has produced three singles with other artists, as well as her own album.

On its release last November, Aline was hailed by French critics as “magnificent” and “jubilant and very moving”, and hailed as the actor’s best film to date, no small praise given that Lemercier has directed 36 films.

International reviews have been less respectful: At the 2021 Cannes Film Festival last July, American critics variously described the film as “really weird”, “crazy as hell” and “weird”. (A line is due out in the US next month.)

The film follows the rise of simple but talented French-Canadian Aline Dieu, who dreams of becoming a famous singer. Teenage Aline – the youngest of 14 children of humble origins – is discovered by a music producer 26 years her senior, who propels her to international stardom with serious dental work and dance lessons (and whom she falls in love with and marries later in the film).

Lemercier as Aline Dieu.

The opening disclaimer that “this film is inspired by the life of Celine Dion. It is, however, a work of fiction” is dishonest – it is the story of Dion’s life. The superstar singer was discovered by manager’s mentor René Angélil when she was 12, and she married him aged 26 in 1994 in a lavish ceremony in which Dion wore a headdress made of Swarovski crystal weighing 3 kg; it is also a scene from Aline. Four years after their marriage, Angélil was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in 2016.

Lemercier never met Dion and did not have his approval before or since making the film. The closest she’s come to Dion is brushing past her in a backstage hallway. The script was written after research and Lemercier says “a certain distance” was probably a good thing for the film, although she says she tried to contact the star.

“As soon as I finished writing the script, the first thing I did was show it to [Dion’s] French manager, who read it very quickly and told me that she could see that it was not mocking and that I liked it. I needed to know that someone in Céline’s entourage saw that this film was well intentioned.

When we met last September, she didn’t know if Dion had seen the film. “I contacted Celine Dion’s manager in Quebec who told me that maybe Celine would see him one day but that she was not interested. So who knows?” The singer’s family have since made it known that they do not like Aline.

“If I were her, I’m not sure I’d be rushing to see it, but I hope the message got through to her because I just want her to know that this movie is a tribute.”

The Lemercier-Dion resemblance is uncanny and fascinating. Lemercier replicated Dion’s lively mannerisms, gestures, and famous Quebec accent. Lemercier also forges a heroically labial path through Dion’s musical repertoire, performed in the film by French-Italian singer Victoria Sio.

Our meeting is set for noon in the chic tea room of the Park Hyatt Vendôme Paris hotel, when Lemercier calls to say that she is late. Her taxi app has crashed, so her publicist suggests that since she’s not far away, maybe she could walk. The answer is no, perhaps explained by the fact that when Lemercier arrives, she’s sporting what looks like a cross between fancy Birkenstocks and furry slippers.

In person, shoes aside, Lemercier is far less eccentric than his reputation suggests. She’s the cliched “funny girl”: hilarious in the spotlight; with disarming seriousness, answering questions like an exam taker looking for the right answers, which are often left hanging with a “here is!”.

Part of his fascination with Dion stems from parallels between the star’s early life and his own, including the belief that neither of them “would win a beauty pageant…I know damn well I have a weird physics and it’s true that I didn’t. feeling like I was a pretty little girl because no one ever told me I was. I always was good about myself [comfortable in my skin], but I’m realistic,” she says. “It must have been the same for Celine when she was young. There’s a scene in the movie where someone jokes that she has a funny face and she’s not very graceful, and I think that Celine must have thought about it. At first she had all this hair, uneven teeth, a big nose. She also had to know [that she wasn’t pretty] …

Celine Dion performing in Quebec.
Celine Dion performing in Quebec. Photograph: Alice Chiche/AFP/Getty Images

“For me, for any 18-year-old starting out as an actor, of course, you better be a beauty – but it’s not a beauty pageant and a lot of great actors aren’t exactly paintbrushes. the oil.” She adds: “I was very into this character. You can’t make a film that doesn’t talk about yourself, that doesn’t talk about your own person, your own body. I wanted to put a little of me. It was also part of me.

Lemercier, the second of four daughters, says that, like Dion, she grew up in a large family. “My two grandmothers had nine children each, so it was not uncommon to have 150 people at the table for family gatherings. I was two years old when I remember making my family laugh and I remember the feeling of great joy that resulted.

At 18, she left school, which she hated, and came to Paris with 1,000 francs (about £100) given to her by her father. She held a series of temporary jobs, including at the perfume counter of the Galeries Lafayette department store, which provided her with equipment for stand-up shows. Her breakup came when she was offered a role in the comedy TV series Palace.

Dion is not the first real person whose life Lemercier has romanticized. The 2005 comedy Palais Royal!, which she also directed, was very loosely based on the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.

“Although it was mostly shot in England with English money, it was never released in the UK. It was years before The Crown and at the time few people made the connection with Diana in France because people didn’t know much about her life, but it was clear to me.”

Lemercier with her prize for best female interpretation for Armchairs of the Orchestra at the Césars in 2007.
Lemercier with her prize for best female interpretation for Armchairs of the Orchestra at the Césars in 2007. Photography: Abaca Press/Alamy

We quickly find that Lemercier’s private life is prohibited. She never married, has no children, but is “not alone”; that’s all I can get out of her. Later, she briefly alludes to a fiancé, but does not give a name. She loves to cook, has visited Japan 26 times, does “a bit of sewing” and says she loves to read but doesn’t have time. “I always have so many irons in the fire. It’s been a while since I read a book and I’m sad about it.

While she is reluctant to talk about herself, Lemercier seems to have known how to use Aline to exorcise certain personal ghosts. Remarks thrown in interviews suggest that the film allowed her to be “the kid I never was” and could explain her wanting to play Dion at all ages. But perhaps the most poignant signal — and the discrepancy between fact and fiction — is the mother-daughter relationship. Dion is close to her mother, embodied in Aline as a fiery character anxious to protect her child by Canadian actress Danielle Fichaud.

Lemercier does not have a close relationship with his mother and says with a nonchalance that seems forced that his parents are “not very interested” in his career. “My mother doesn’t watch television and didn’t even know that I had won a Molière. I think a friend told him the next day. She’s not ashamed, but she’s not interested. She’s not at all a mother hen like Céline’s mother; quite the contrary,” she says.

“I would have liked her to be otherwise, but she was, how to say, less present. But I am very close to my sisters and we have a certain solidarity between us to compensate for the absence of our mother.

Lemercier’s forte, for which she is best known in France, is the one woman show. “I like to be the center of attention. I know you’re not supposed to and when you’re young and you run for office as a class student representative they always tell you not to vote for yourself. But why not? I was brought up with the idea that you shouldn’t draw attention to yourself, that you should be discreet, not be too flashy, not wear too much makeup. I was 10 when I signed a note to my mother promising never to wear makeup, and today I can spend two hours doing my hair and makeup before going on stage.

She is currently on stage in Paris in a three-way comedy that runs until the end of May, but is excited about Aline’s release in the United States, dismissing the snobbery that exists in French culture about America. “Of course, I’m interested in Hollywood. I’m not an intellectual. Not at all. So it’s great news that the film is coming out in the United States,” she says. would like to be a Hollywood star. It would be nice to live in a big house and have my own seamstress in a small house next door. If I were richer, I would have someone who would make all my dresses and that would be my luxury – better than a private jet or a personal cook or staff.

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