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The Velvet Queen

Filled with stunning nature cinematography, this awe-inspiring documentary charts the search for a Tibetan snow leopard.
By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2022
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"If nothing came, we just hadn't looked properly." Partway through The Velvet Queen, writer Sylvain Tesson utters these lyrical words about a specific and patient quest; however, they echo far further than the task at hand. This absorbing documentary tracks his efforts with wildlife photographer Vincent Munier to see a snow leopard — one of the most rare and elusive big cats there is — but much in the entrancing film relates to life in general. Indeed, while the animals that roam the Tibetan plateau earns this flick's focus, as does the sweeping landscape itself, Munier and his fellow co-director and feature first-timer Marie Amiguet have made a movie about existence first and foremost. When you peer at nature, you should see the world, as well as humanity's place in it. You should feel the planet's history, and the impact that's being made on its future, too. Sensing exactly that with this engrossing picture comes easily — and so does playing a ravishing big-screen game of Where's Wally?.

No one wears red-and-white striped jumpers within The Velvet Queen's frames, of course. The Consolations of the Forest author Tesson and world-renowned shutterbug Munier dress to blend in, trying to camouflage into their sometimes-dusty, sometimes-snowy, always-rocky surroundings, but they aren't the ones that the film endeavours to spy. The creatures that inhabit Tibet's craggy peaks have evolved to blend in, so attempting to see many of them is an act of persistence and deep observation — and locking eyes on the snow leopard takes that experience to another level. Sometimes, pure movement gives away a critter's presence. On one occasion, looking back through images of a perched falcon offers unexpected rewards. As lensed by Amiguet (La vallée des loups), Munier and assistant director Léo-Pol Jacquot, The Velvet Queen draws upon hidden cameras, too, but so much of Tesson and Munier's mission is about sitting, watching and accepting that everything happens in its own time.

Letting what comes come — and acknowledging that some things simply won't ever occur at all — isn't an easy truth to grapple with. Nonetheless, it's also one of this contemplative feature's achievements, even though it's a type of detective story through and through. Tesson and Munier follow clues to search for the snow leopard, moving positions and setting up blinds wherever they think will score them their sought-after footage. In the process, they learn a lesson as all sleuths do. As they face the possibility that they might not be successful, which Tesson's perceptively navel-gazing narration explains, The Velvet Queen becomes a mindfulness course in filmic form. It has something astonishing that all the Calm, Headspace and similar apps in the world don't, though: the film's on-the-ground recordings (well, 5000-metres-up recordings), which show why finding peace with life's ebbs and flows is all that we can really hope for. 

Accompanied by a stirring score from Australian icons and lifelong bandmates Warren Ellis and Nick Cave — their latest contribution to cinema on a resume that includes The Proposition, The Road, Hell or High Water and Wind River before it — it's no wonder that The Velvet Queen's philosophising voiceover also notes that "waiting was a prayer". It's similarly unsurprising that Tesson penned a book, The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet, based on the trip captured in the documentary. In fact, if you're the kind of person who keeps their peepers peeled for feline life in any new neighbourhood you visit, or even if you're just strolling around your own, this feature firmly understands. More than that, it one-ups you, while also connecting with the act of scouring and seeking as much as the potential joys of getting what you wish for.

To stress the point, poetic missives about being content with what you have are peppered through as well. Think: Werner Herzog (The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft) meets Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life), complete with the penchant for whispering that's such an established part of the latter's work. Keeping a hushed vocal tone is wholly justified when you're trying not to disturb nature, however, which is also key among The Velvet Queen's goals. It may not boast the descriptive and scientific run-through of a David Attenborough (Prehistoric Planet)-hosted nature doco, but this film is committed to taking in its worshipped namesake and the plateau's other residents in all their innate and inherent glory. Most of the narration is precisely deployed as a result, letting the movie's visuals do the bulk of the work — but helping, emphasising and augmenting what's already a ruminative mood.

What majestic and magnificent imagery it is, too, especially when Amiguet, Munier and Jacquot are standing back, taking in the land as far and wide as the lens can see, and letting the audience do the spotting along with them. A sense of distance radiates throughout the movie, visibly showing the remove that Munier and Tesson remain at for their safety, and to increase their chances of seeing a snow leopard — and also underscoring that chasm between humanity and nature that Tesson talks about. When The Velvet Queen does zoom closer during its 92-minute duration, the end product is similarly breathtaking. Scenes of a Pallas' cat in pounce mode give off a mischievous vibe — again, the connections with everyday life are plain to see; anyone with a cat in their lives will recognise the links — and a sequence of portrait-like telephoto-lens closeups belongs on gallery walls.

Add The Velvet Queen to the ranks of meditative and transportive cinema, alongside films such as Jennifer Peedom's River and Mountain, for instance — features that know the power of communing with our environment and its vast array of other inhabitants. Add it to the list of such movies that look on in spellbinding awe but never with simplicity, including when surveying the complexities of making this very documentary. Add it, as well, to the always-needed reminders about interacting with the tangible over the digital, knowing how existence's cycles affect us all, finding serenity where and how you can, and accepting life's unshakeable certainties. The Velvet Queen doesn't always need lines as flowery as "prehistory wept, and each tear was a yak" or "for me, a dream; for him, a rendezvous" to go with it, but it's always a film of beauty, feeling, insight and inspiration.

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