A full-blown nosedive into the rites of Mongolian shamans may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly for Corine (Cécile de France), the heroine of French writer-director Fabienne Berthaud’s latest feature, A Bigger World (Un monde plus grand).
Based on a true story, although we unfortunately don’t learn this until the closing credits, the film follows a sound engineer’s long journey from grieving widow to a woman with unique spiritual powers she learns to harness for her own good. It’s hard to believe at times, and some of the drama can be heavy-handed, but de France gives it all in a role that has her literally dragging herself through the mud and howling like a wolf. A premiere in Venice should help boost World’s profile overseas, although like the director’s last feature, Sky, release will be limited to a few screens and territories.
Adapted by Berthaud and Claire Barré from the autobiographical account Mon intitiation chez les Chamanes, the story follows — or more like tracks, so much Nathalie Durand’s camera is glued to de France’s side throughout the entire movie — a woman who recently lost her lifelong partner and is in a near-catatonic state of grief for at least half the running time, until several epiphanies put her on a different track.
Severely depressed and unable to work her day job when the movie starts, Corine is soon sent by friend and fellow sound mixer, Marc (Arieh Worthalter), to record a Mongolian shaman ceremony for a documentary in progress. Accompanied by a translator, Naraa (Narantsetseg Dash), she makes the arduous trek by horseback into a remote corner of Mongolia populated by reindeer herders known as the Tsaatan.
But what’s meant to be a few days of sound work becomes an out-of-body experience when Corine witnesses a ritual conducted by the shaman Oyun (played by actress Tserendarizav Dashnyam) and suddenly falls into a long agitated trance — one that looks like a seizure accompanied by animal-like noises resembling the cries of a wolf. (The music-trance sequence brings to mind a memorable scene from Tony Gatlif’s Exiles.)
For Corine, as well as the viewer, the whole thing seems freaky. But for Oyun it’s clear that her guest is a veritable shaman who needs to stick around for training. Spooked out by the affair and still mourning the loss of her lover, Corine heads back to France, only to fall into a trance every time she hears the drum beat recorded during the ceremony. And so she decides to return to Mongolia and become, well, a shaman.
This may all seem a little far-fetched, and if it weren’t for an explanatory note at the end there is no reason to believe that Corine’s story could be true. Berthaud might have given us an inkling of this at the start of her film, lending more credibility to the drama, but instead she plunges us into the action and expects us to go along with it.
At times we do, in part thanks to de France’s full commitment to a project that was shot in the rough on location and often seems closer to documentary than to fiction. Not every actress could convincingly do all the things she does here, roughing it on the Mongolian steppes and transforming into a thriving, beast-like presence at will.
But sometimes it’s a bit too much, borderline over-the-top, and composer Valentin Hadjadj’s score slaps the pathos on thick as Corine’s altered states bring her closer to reconciliation with death and herself. Only toward the close of the movie do we realize that her progression from sufferer to shaman master — one accompanied by Rocky-like montage sequences of Corine chopping wood and carrying buckets of water — may not only be real, but may serve some kind of scientific purpose. It comes a bit too late, in a film that tends to run too long, but it’s a rewarding conclusion.
Production companies: Haut et Court, Telfrance (3×7 Productions), Scope Pictures
Cast: Cécile de France, Narantsetseg Dash, Tserendarizav Dashnyam, Ludivine Sagnier, Arieh Worthalter
Director: Fabienne Berthaud
Screenwriters: Fabienne Berthaud, Claire Barré, based on the book Mon initiation chez les Chamanes by Corine Sombrun
Producers: Carole Scotta, Christine Palluel, Barbara Letellier
Director of photography: Nathalie Durand
Production designer: Eve Martin
Costume designer: Mimi Lempicka
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Composer: Valentin Hadjadj
Casting director: Richard Rousseau
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Venice Days)
Sales: WaZabi Films
In French, Mongolian, Dukhan, English