Review: The Velvet Queen – La panthère des neiges (2021)

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The Velvet Queen – La panthère des neiges (2021)

Directed by: Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier | 92 minutes | documentary

In ‘The Velvet Queen’, wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson travel together into the Tibetan mountains to capture the magnificent landscapes and local wildlife. Their ultimate goal? Catch a glimpse of the illustrious snow leopard, an animal as beautiful as it is elusive.

The film starts with a wide shot of a vast plateau that initially raises some questions. We see several black animals that seem to be engaged in some kind of dance with a group of smaller white creatures. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a herd of yaks (large cattle) being preyed upon by a pack of wolves, with the predators having one of the calves in their sights. There is no bombastic soundtrack: the scene is presented as it happens, without extra frills, exaggeration or dramatization.

That approach is normative for the rest of the film. The animals – sometimes up close in the form of beautiful and detailed close-ups, other times as tiny dots in the mighty mountain landscape – steal the show, without us getting a cartload of information about their behaviour, biology or ecology. Because ‘The Velvet Queen’ does try to make clear how to film and photograph shy animals in their natural habitat, there is also a strong focus on the ins and outs of Munier and Tesson. Wrapped in thick layers of thermal clothing, the two Frenchmen wade through the snow, crawling and lying, always with binoculars and telephoto lens at the ready, in search of the best spots in the vast landscape to capture animals on film.

Whether that will work is always the question. For the layman, the Tibetan highlands seem mainly to be an empty and inhospitable landscape where flora and fauna are sparse. But Tesson has a motto that gradually pays off as the film progresses: “If you don’t see anything, you’re not looking well.” With a healthy dose of patience, tenacity and ecological knowledge, the two manage to capture a varied spectrum of beautiful animal species. The yaks and wild asses emerge like shadows from the mist and twilight landscape, while the aesthetically pleasing Tibetan fox feasts on whistling hares. Where bearded vultures and blue sheep live on the deceptively steep rock cliffs, the vast plains are the domain of the lightning fast and athletic Tibetan antelope. We also see a bear family that gets a little too close at one point and are introduced to the manoel, a smaller and extremely woolly relative of the snow leopard. The panther more than lives up to its reputation as the ‘spirit of the mountains’ and proves to be extremely difficult to track down. What is also striking: the animals often have the filmers in their sights sooner than the other way around, which leads to the necessary penetrating glances into the camera.

Munier and Tesson’s diligent, infectious and boyish adventurism is aurally clothed by their own musings. These sometimes result in interesting and true reflections (Tesson is right in describing the expedition and the scenery that surrounds him as an antidote to the ‘puppet show of humanity’ that modern, hectic life often is). The film is largely a plea for attentive watching and immersion in the moment in an ever-changing world. The beautiful, understated and spiritual soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis subtly underlines that message.

On the other hand, some quasi-philosophical commentaries sometimes seem a bit naive and contradictory. The statement that ‘such landscapes would do everyone good’ illustrates the contradiction. If everyone traveled to these areas, the magic would soon be over. Then the well-known phrase from the Eagles song ‘The Last Resort’ probably comes true for the umpteenth time: “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” It’s better if the few truly wild places left on Earth remain the preserve of the animals, plants, and the occasional ecologist, photographer, or film-maker who knows how to handle such precious natural heritage assets.

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