MONTREAL — Portraying a version of Quebec's beloved songstress Céline Dion on the big screen was a risky prospect for "Aline" star Valérie Lemercier, a French actress and standup comic who stars, co-wrote and directed the film.
But she says she's bracing for another daunting challenge Friday: releasing the French-language film to Quebec audiences, from whom she expects an unparalleled level of scrutiny.
Although the romantic comedy has already screened in France and other places in Europe, Lemercier says releasing "Aline" in Dion's home province is more stressful than any other premiere so far.
"I know very well it's Quebec's queen," Lemercier said during a recent stop in Montreal to promote the film.
"She's royal family, she's like the Eiffel Tower."
Lemercier said she recognizes that a non-Quebecer portraying Dion, especially when it comes to her accent, will be seen by many as audacious.
"First of all, you all know I am not a Quebecer, so what can I say," Lemercier said, adding she wanted to find a balance between the Quebecois accent and being understood.
"I know it's treason."
Her French accent in the movie, however, has become a sore subject with some critics. The actress said her intention was not to force a Quebecois accent on Aline but to render her performance more personal — and to make the film accessible internationally.
"I wanted the movie to circulate, for it to travel," Lemercier said, suggesting that a Quebecois accent would demand subtitles for a French audience. "It's better to watch the actors' eyes than to read."
"Aline" is loosely based on the life of the French-Canadian star. Lemercier's sixth feature film is a work of fiction, in which Céline Dion is renamed "Aline Dieu" and Dion's producer-manager husband René Angélil is called Guy-Claude Kamar.
The rest, however, follows her life closely — but Lemercier takes some liberties in dramatizing milestones that mirror Dion's life.
Set from 1932 to 2016, the two-hour film covers various eras, from rural Quebec in the first half of the 20th century. The audience meets Aline's parents from an early age, Anglomard and Sylvette, all the way to their wedding where Aline's father says he doesn't want children. They go on to have 14.
The movie then traces key moments Aline shares with Dion — from a star-making turn at the Eurovision Song Contest for Switzerland in 1988 to a glamorous Las Vegas residency, decades into her career.
Lemercier, 57, plays Aline throughout the entire movie from age five to late 40s, a decision the actress defends.
"Acting is, for me, like being a lawyer and defending your client," Lemercier said, adding that she never considered hiring a younger actress. "I wanted to defend the role myself."
The movie also stars Quebec actors Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud, Roc Lafortune, Antoine Vézina and Pascale Desrochers. Aline's singing voice is performed by Victoria Sio, who covers a few of Dion's most famous songs, including "My Heart Will Go On."
With a budget of more than $30 million, "Aline" was shot in France, Spain and Quebec. It will be released in English across Canada in January.
The movie, which was sold in more than 50 countries, has received Dion's blessing through her French manager, according to Lemercier. The singer, however, has yet to publicly comment on it.
Marcel, who plays Kamar — the film's take on Angélil — said he believes Lemercier's French nationality and perspective make the film more relatable to diverse audiences.
"Céline belongs to the world," Marcel said in recent interview. "I'm not sure a Quebec film director would have been able to do something like this; we are too close to it."
Before Angélil's death in 2016, the famous couple was a favourite target of Quebec television comics wont to parody Angélil's raspy voice or the couple's lovey-dovey nicknames, but Lemercier said she wanted to avoid that.
Actress Danielle Fichaud, who plays Aline's mother, Sylvette Dieu, said that when she first read the script, she didn't see another parody, but instead felt a lot of kindness toward Dion and her family.
"If it had been done without respect, I wouldn't have done it," Fichaud said in a recent interview. "I didn't want to be the spokesperson for jokes about the Dions."
Beyond the musical tribute to Dion's life, there’s a love story Lemercier said she was aching to tell.
The homage doesn't touch on the scandals or rumours involving the singer, and centres on the unique relationship between Dion and Angélil, whom Dion met as a preteen.
After 21 years of marriage, Angélil died at age 73, also leaving their three children René Charles, Nelson and Eddy.
"I immediately saw that it was the big story of her life," Lemercier said.
Lemercier, Marcel and Fichaud all said they hope Dion will watch the movie, while Lemercier said the singer's eldest son, René Charles, requested a copy.
"I sent him a note to say I hope he won't be disappointed," Lemercier said. "That I know he lost his dad and grandmother too early, but that I hope he could see glimpses here and there, moments that would tell his parents' story."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 24, 2021.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press