Connecting to the wild

Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier on Warren Ellis, Nick Cave and The Velvet Queen

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Do you see the Tibetan snow leopard in Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s majestic documentary The Velvet Queen (La Panthère Des Neiges)?
Do you see the Tibetan snow leopard in Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s majestic documentary The Velvet Queen (La Panthère Des Neiges)? Photo: Haut et Court

In 2021, Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s majestic documentary The Velvet Queen (La Panthère Des Neiges) with commentary by Sylvain Tesson, an unwavering dramatic score by Warren Ellis, and the haunting ‘We Are Not Alone’ sung by Nick Cave, had a World Première Special Screening at the Cannes Film Festival.

The three amigos, Vincent Munier with Marie Amiguet and Anne-Katrin Titze on the Nick Cave, Warren Ellis song We Are Not Alone and the score: “I followed their art for a long time and we tried by sending a draft of the movie and they accepted.”
The three amigos, Vincent Munier with Marie Amiguet and Anne-Katrin Titze on the Nick Cave, Warren Ellis song We Are Not Alone and the score: “I followed their art for a long time and we tried by sending a draft of the movie and they accepted.”

In 1962, French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his work on totemism, coined the phrase that “animals are good to think with.” In the mountains of Tibet, the filmmakers’ quest is much more than a search for the elusive snow leopard, it is an ongoing meditation on what it means to observe nature and be observed by it.

Bharals nimbly navigate the rocks; three bears, a mom and two cubs, look out over the landscape and scratch their backs on a cliff, while we hear Nick Cave’s probing voice. There are ravens and Tibetan antelopes, a baby owl and wolves. Red dust ascends, storm winds are gathering, at times the landscape resembles velvet. “Not everything was created for the human eye,” comments Sylvain, the travel writer and adventurer, which of course makes us want to see it even more.

The yaks,”so unmodern, immobile and silent,” are described as “vessels of suspended time.” The two men, wildlife photographer Vincent and Sylvain, filmed by Marie, are of very different mentality. Sylvain, who concludes that for “45 years” he “saw nothing,” probes if not dark thoughts enter into Vincent’s mind when watching animals for a long time. “Not at all” is the film’s co-director’s response and Vincent’s photos are proof.

The animals’ faces he captures on camera are filled with a light from within. “Once I photographed a leopard without knowing it” he says, while taking photos of a falcon. When the observed is allowed to observe, the dialogue can be magical and the world a better place.

From the Vosges, France, Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier joined me for an in-depth conversation on The Velvet Queen.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Marie, where are you right now?

Marie Amiguet: At home in the Vosges, in the Northeast of France, close to the German border.

AKT: I would like to begin with your opening images. We see a herd of dark animals and then smaller white animals come and attack. Because we see it from above, it is almost like a strange chess game. Only later on do we figure out that this is yaks and wolves.

Vincent Munier: You are talking about the first shots with the yaks and the wolves coming. Yeah, I filmed it a long time ago. When I was alone, I spent one month there and I filmed it from my tent in the mountains with the iPhone and the telescope. It’s very far and that’s why the quality of the image is not so good, it’s something like foggy because it was so cold. It was a very good idea from the editor [Vincent Schmitt]. It was perfect to start with the prey and the predator. With the music of Warren Ellis, we saw it as just perfect to start the movie with this footage.

The shots of the wild yaks, where the light forms a kind of halo around their outlines - made me think of ancient cave paintings.
The shots of the wild yaks, where the light forms a kind of halo around their outlines - made me think of ancient cave paintings. Photo: Haut et Court

AKT: We as audiences are pushed to figure it out and wonder if this is a kind of sacrifice. I’m curious to hear from you if there was a first encounter with an animal that put you on that path to make animal documentaries, to become an animal photographer. Was it a real animal? A picture book? A story?

MA: For me, I was lucky I was brought up by my parents in the country and we were able to enjoy the country environment. Unlike Vincent’s parents who were naturalists, my parents weren’t naturalists. Over the years I subscribed to many nature magazines. I was very interested in the subject. I studied biology and while I liked the subject, I realised that it didn’t really go with the approach I wanted. Then I discovered that through cinema I could combine that love that I have for animals and also for cinema and use it as a creative way to express what was in my heart about these subjects.

AKT: Vincent, what was the first animal love for you?

VM: As Marie said, I was very lucky to grow up with parents who showed us the beauty of the nature around the house. I grew up very close to the forest. Thanks to my father I spent a lot of time in the forest. My father gave me a camera and I was alone in the forest, completely hidden, and I took my first picture of a deer.

Marie Amiguet on Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson: “All of it was their own spontaneity and I was just there as the observer and filmed them.”
Marie Amiguet on Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson: “All of it was their own spontaneity and I was just there as the observer and filmed them.” Photo: Haut et Court

I was age 12, so very young, and after that I spent my time in the forest to try and film or photograph the wildlife. It’s after this moment that my life changed completely. I was a very bad student; I stopped my studies very early just to spend more time in the wild. Slowly and slowly I became a professional. Since 2000 it’s my job and I’m so lucky.

AKT: Your film is a fantastic plea to viewers to realize what needs to be done to preserve the world we have, its nature, its wildlife. The images made me cry several times because they’re so beautiful. The snow leopard’s face is a marvel. What is it about the snow leopard that makes it contain the whole world?

VM: What was really very important for me in doing this was that we’d be able to connect with what is still in the wild and to realize that humans as well as animals are all interdependent with each other and I think that this is something that humans have lost. As a society and a culture we have gone too fast, everything moves too fast and we’ve lost sight of the fact that there exists this fragility between human beings and the animal world all around us.

Through this project and through the beauty of the images that we are showing, of the text that was written by Sylvain Tesson, it might bring back to people what they’re losing being caught up in that spiral that society has. Which in a sense formats us not to be aware. We wanted again to bring back those values about the importance of nature and the fragility of the other species and to make people more aware of what’s happening in the environment.

I noticed for the first time how much the pallas cat resembles Jean Marais in Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête.
I noticed for the first time how much the pallas cat resembles Jean Marais in Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête. Photo: Haut et Court

When you’re confronted with a very strong powerful animal, with the face of the animal, each of us sees in it what we want to see but it’s also an important message that the animal is sending to us. It’s also a warning to us. These species, as powerful as they may seem, they’re also species that are endangered. It’s important for us to keep that in mind.

AKT: Marie, when you were filming Vincent and Sylvain’s interactions, how was it similar to filming the animals? Actually I’m more interested in the similarities than the differences.

MA: You are right! One of the things about filming humans is that you don’t really want to be a presence. Of course the camera is something that is unnatural. I wanted to make myself as unobtrusive as possible so that they forgot that I was there and to be present when there was unexpected behavior.

Being attentive to very small details, very small actions that they might do without intruding in what was going on between the two of them. At no time did I tell them what they should talk about. All of it was their own spontaneity and I was just there as the observer and filmed them. What I learned is that in a way it was somewhat easier to film them than it was the animals.

VM: Not every time! It’s not easier every time, I think.

La Bête (Jean Marais) with Belle (Josette Day) in La Belle Et La Bête
La Bête (Jean Marais) with Belle (Josette Day) in La Belle Et La Bête

AKT: Looking at the images of nature, I also saw centuries or more of culture reflected in it. There are shots of the wild yaks, where the light forms a kind of halo around their outlines - it made me think of ancient cave paintings. I noticed for the first time how much the Pallas Cat resembles Jean Marais in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. I suddenly started thinking of it the other way around, as I put it now, a kind of rediscovery of the animals that were the models in the first place. Does it happen to you sometime that you see art reflected in nature and not the other way around?

VM: I like what you said, because for us it is on the same level as a famous French or American actor, they, the animals, are the main characters. And you are right, it’s important to remember that among all these species that have been in this environment, that have made this track across this area, there’s a link. There’s a link between the species that continues across the centuries. It puts into perspective ourselves. I myself regret the fact that I never had the opportunity to meet some of those species that have now disappeared.

For example the Woolly Mammoth is something I’m never going to see, but we still have the opportunity to see animals like the wild yak, which is a species that goes back for thousands of years. We can still see some trees that are 3, 4, 5 thousand years old. Their survival over time really does put into perspective that we as humans are very much just specks of dust that are really here for a very brief time.

What we need to do is to venerate these beings that have existed across the ages. We wanted to show people how important it is for them to have respect for these beings, whether animals or trees or other long-surviving species and not be as disrespectful as we are. With the speed and intelligence that we have, we have oftentimes bulldozed forward without taking into account the importance of these species. We wanted it to be a wakeup call.

Vincent Munier in The Velvet Queen: “Once I photographed a leopard without knowing it.”
Vincent Munier in The Velvet Queen: “Once I photographed a leopard without knowing it.” Photo: Haut et Court

AKT: Part of that wakeup call is the music. Warren Ellis provided a fantastic score, with Nick Cave coming in with a song. How did that collaboration happen?

VM: In French we say “c’est la cerise sur le gâteau.”

AKT: The cherry on the cake! [The icing on the cake or the cherry on top]

VM The last song by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, ‘We Are Not Alone’, summarizes it. For me it was a dream to work with Warren Ellis. I followed their art for a long time and we tried by sending a draft of the movie and they accepted.

MA: It’s true, from the very start of the project Vincent was always listening to Warren’s music, whenever he travelled. When you see the opening shots, he was even listening to the music then. We saw that that was really going to work and we were delighted that he was going to work on it with us. At one point we brought in another musician and we found out that it didn’t have the kind of impact and power that Warren’s music has. He is more or less the shaman of music for us on this project.

AKT: Did you see 20,000 Days On Earth?

The Tibetan fox in pursuit
The Tibetan fox in pursuit Photo: Haut et Court

MA: Yes, we’ve seen it last year.

AKT: I interviewed the directors, Warren is very interesting in it. My first question to you was about the opening shots of your film, I want to close with the ending, which features this little bird, that looks like a tiny orange pumpkin. After all the glorious snow leopard footage, here is this little pumpkin bird. It’s a wonderful send off.

MA: The use of the bird at the end was once again a reflection of what our values are. In a way the snow leopard served as an excuse for our going to Tibet to find such an elusive animal. It was also an excuse to bring Sylvain [Tesson] into the project, to be able to hear his take on what we are seeing. You know, the leopard, she’s always the heroine of this movie, but she’s not the only character that’s important in the movie.

All of the species we encounter were important. So this small bird was representative of all of the others, because without the small bird the snow leopard wouldn’t continue to exist and without the snow leopard the small bird wouldn’t continue to exist. It’s important to remember that there is this balance. Don’t exclude any of the species when you’re looking at nature.

The Velvet Queen screens at Film Forum in New York
The Velvet Queen screens at Film Forum in New York

VM: While it’s important to have animals that are dramatic, it’s also important to have animals that are very simple but that are able to remind us that there’s just as much poetry in something simple like the small bird flying as there is in the snow leopard.

AKT: Beautifully put, beautiful film! Thank you both so much!

VM: Thank you very much Anne-Katrin!

MA: Happy holidays!

The Velvet Queen opened at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, December 22 and has been extended through at least Thursday, January 6, 2022. It is also showing at the Royal Laemmle in Los Angeles through Thursday, January 6; then opening at the Playhouse 7 on January 7; Town Center 5, Newhall and Claremount 5 on January 14.

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