“The Velvet Queen” Review: In Search of the Snow Leopard in Tibet
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Gorgeous, humble, looking outward, upward and inward, documentary “The Velvet Queen” is the rare nature film not only about beauty and beasts, but also very human envy. to make sense of our place in all of this.
The film is a French three-way collaboration in which wildlife photographer Vincent Munier guides writer Sylvain Tesson on a journey to the Tibetan highlands, filmed by Maria Amiguet (a director of photography making her debut in co-directing with Munier) . It begins as a quest for the elusive and endangered snow leopard, but graciously settles into an appreciation of the journey and all the wonders it discovers: a moonlit yak silhouette resembling a monster from a childhood dream; swirling mist at high altitude that suggests the mountain is breathing; a rich furry Pallas cat whose hesitant movements as he approaches his prey could make him the best red-fire-green player of all time.
Shard’s narrative and flowery commentary provide some background facts at the start. He had long admired Munier’s photography and films, and it turned into a friendship. Now he drags this haunting nature across cold, barren, and picturesque plains, shady valleys and rocky elevations where – as Munier likes to point out – they wouldn’t be the only ones to watch. (A playful opening shows two local nomads sitting outside the base hut, awaiting the return of the men from one of their excursions, curtly wondering if a pack of wolves have eaten them.)
Patience is Munier’s enduring principle, which is why his article of faith is in the Blind Man’s Choice, a place of concealment where he will remain happy during brutal times until the creatures make their appearance. Or not. Fully accepting that he is the vulnerable stumble in conditions and spaces generally inhospitable to humans, Munier always finds spiritual value in spending a day without any observation. What matters is being present at the expanse of nature as a means of fending off what he sees as the ecologically damaging indifference of humans to their environment. It also makes him excited to notice the polished rock face of a cave, the wet footprints and strands of moss, which indicate the once habitat of a bear, which he sees bear in the flesh. (And they end up doing it during one of their watchings, which is an exciting time.)
The Snow Leopard, meanwhile, is whispered as if it were the alluring suspect in existential darkness. Munier says he photographed one once without realizing it, the attention of his viewfinder drawn to the centering of a perched hawk – only years later he noticed the leopard peering out a nearby ridge , blending into the ground. This image from his archives (which we can see) is indeed a stunning example of concealment in plain sight, and it helps train our eyes for later cases of camouflage and emergence, when Amiguet’s camera is on. set on a steep hill and that Munier is informing us of the presence of a creature. In these moments, “The Velvet Queen” can look like a series of paintings that sometimes come to life.
Shard’s soft-spoken reflections, taken from his notes, are a more scattered element. Sometimes, they wonderfully evoke the philosophy of his companion to love the Earth by looking at it deeply and what it feels like to see these harsh landscapes and their inhabitants like Munier. Sometimes they’re a bit exaggerated as a cosmic commentary, like when he says, “Prehistory cried, and every tear was a yak.” The more psalms accompaniments prevail over the more purple prose. (Shard’s writings on the journey were published under the title “The Art of Patience: Searching for the Snow Leopard in Tibet.”)
The bottom line is that “The Velvet Queen” feels like a human adventure, not a patronizing visit to nature. No spoils either on whether their research gives the desired insight (a “tail”?), But again, when was a detective story about the arrest, or a road trip movie about the destination, or a fable about morale? This benevolent hunt along breathtaking peaks and vast plateaus is rich in animal majesty and unspoiled geographic magnificence. And most importantly, you never feel like you’re just waiting for something.
“The Velvet Queen”
In French and Tibetan with English subtitles
Duration of operation: 1 hour 32 minutes
Playing: Starts December 22, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles