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‘The Velvet Queen’ Review: Gorgeous Quest for Tibetan Snow Leopard Paints a Cynical View of Humanity

The nature documentary's mesmerizing mountainous footage and complementary score save it from its self-important "call of the wild" philosophizing.

THE VELVET QUEEN, (aka LA PANTHERE DES NEIGES), 2021. © Oscilloscope Laboratories / Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Velvet Queen”

Everett Collection

Reflections on nature, humanity’s negligence, and mortality, as well as an inquiry into the righteousness of restraint, all propel “The Velvet Queen” (“La Panthère des Neiges”), a new documentary from director Marie Amiguet. Part travelogue, part meditation, it’s a journey in search of the elusive Tibetan snow leopard, “the spirit of the mountain” high in the Himalayas, a quest guided by Vincent Munier, a life-long naturalist, and professional wildlife photographer. Accompanying him at 16,400 ft in subzero temperatures is globetrotter and writer Sylvain Tesson, who also narrates.

The two venture into the wild, beautiful, yet daunting region “unmarked by human hand,” where the simple act of waiting is explored as a cure for the hysteria of modern society. A requiem for the call of the wild, if it’s philosophizing paints a cynical picture of humanity’s plight, its breathtaking images overpower it.

While the film’s synopsis suggests that the snow leopard features prominently, only a brief portion of the work captures the animal. It’s an extravagant justification for a journey that is ultimately driven by the desire to discover an abundance of wildlife in their natural state, the beauty and ruthlessness of it all. Stolen glimpses of other phantasmagorical creatures become rewards in themselves, that will likely send curious viewers to Google in search of stories about the Bharal, the Pallas’s cat, and Saker falcon, to name a few; appetizers before the main course, and trademark of the diversity that’s intrinsic to the area.

It may at first seem extreme, but an expedition through the Himalayas, in search of a near-mythical beast is a logical response that serves as a remedy to crisis or trauma, as was the case for an emotionally-wounded Tesson who was in desperate need of a reaffirmation of life. A leap of faith, many have unsuccessfully sought to break bread with the elusive creature. Like royalty, “no one is promised an encounter,” says Tesson. But he and Munier are determined, which means they must live amongst the wild, where they are at the mercy of the elements.

Each outing means remaining motionless and silent for hours while enduring brutal cold, and the thin air of high altitudes. Above all, avoiding detection is paramount. They aren’t on a hunt, but the chase is similar. The animals might not be immediately visible, hiding on the other side of rocks or inside tunnels they dug for themselves, but they are alert.

It’s a round-the-clock vigil, from dawn until dusk, during which these two very different men — taciturn, sensitive, nature-obsessed Munier, to boisterous, chatty, world-traveler Tesson — bond through conversation and silence, in intimate settings that lack pretense and compromise, much like the terrain that eclipses them. It’s thematically in line then that “The Velvet Queen” places a premium on man’s confrontations with nature, over man’s confrontation with man. Both share the deep respect the Tibetan people have for nature that has persisted for thousands of years, and remains crucial to the future of the “Roof of the World.”

The experienced Munier, at one with nature, boasts a dedication to the search that is unmatched. And for the renowned writer Munier, it’s a bootcamp for the art of patience. He eventually comes to embrace the virtues of stoicism. The camera’s discreet gaze records, seemingly invisible to both subjects who are eventually rewarded when the prize, the snow leopard, with thick grey and slightly yellow-tinted fur, and rosettes, reveals itself as an embodiment of what humankind is perceived to have renounced: liberty, autonomy, and solitude.

It soon notices them in the distance, slowly drops to the ground, crouches, and stares intently; what it’s thinking, a mystery. Its face doesn’t speak of aggression, but instead curiosity and caution, likely wondering what these strange-looking creatures are. Predators? Its positioning could either signal a warning, or it could be more reverential. It doesn’t matter as long as the distance between observer and observed is maintained. Tesson, Munier, the camera, and therefore the viewer savor their good fortune. A swelling score and the imagery do the heavy-lifting.

Eventually, as “the spirit of the mountain” saunters away, its camouflage allows it to become one with its surroundings, fading into a crag backdrop.

Amid the grandness of the experience, there’s a borderline misanthropic undercurrent in “The Velvet Queen” that implicates humanity’s increasing disconnect from nature as a leading factor in what Tesson believes is its downfall. It borders on overbearing melodrama when he speaks of man as ruinous, his culture eroding, and any forward progress as regression.

“We had to accept the depressing idea the earth reeks of humans,” he says.

His romanticism fully realized would mean abandoning possessions, and escaping from what he considers the noise and decay of city life, with minimal accompaniment, including a pen and notepad, for an uncompromised wilderness, an experience that will restore humanity to some uncontaminated glory.

Tesson narrates in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, punctuated by poetic interjections, making observations leaning heavily on East Asian spirituality and stoic philosophies about life as torturous, the concept of dogged determination, to teachings from Hindu scripture about letting go of expectations beyond those you place on yourself. And when he says, “Revere what is in front of us; hope for nothing; delight in what crops up; have faith in poetry; be content with the world; fight for it to remain,” he expresses the documentary’s conclusion in concentrated form.

Tesson is hardly the first to eulogize these tenets, even though they are submitted as revelations, which he continually asserts throughout the film. It risks muffling any ascribed urgency, or worse, becoming irksome were it not complemented by Munier’s expert observations on nature’s gifts and mysteries. And of course, the breathtaking silent views of Tibetan plateaus, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, captured by Amiguet’s camera, interspersed with still photography of the immensity of the landscape. Complemented by poignant original music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, both images and score are stars of a film made for the theatrical experience.

It’s enough to inspire even the non-nature-minded to seek out new adventures, whether on untamed land or in one’s backyard.

Ultimately, humankind’s awareness of its relative unimportance — “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” — is “The Velvet Queen’s” overarching theme, led with a provocative, though recycled cri de coeur for a literal and figurative return to nature. Whether it prompts genuine introspection, or even inspires further conversation on what Tesson argues, may provide some measure of how effective the film is. But whether or not viewers put any stock in his proclamations, it’s also perfectly OK to simply celebrate the grandeur in nature that the documentary exalts.

Grade: B-

An Official Selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, “The Velvet Queen” opens in New York (Film Forum) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Royal) this week, to be followed by a national expansion.

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