The Velvet Queen

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Velvet Queen
"In its quiet moments your senses will be on edge, exploring the breathtaking landscape, alert to what might be hiding there."

There are believed to be fewer than 7,000 snow leopards alive in the world today. It’s hard to be certain because they live in some of the world’s most remote regions, rarely coming into contact with humans. Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s documentary, best seen on the biggest available screen, sees Munier accompanying novelist and adventurer Sylvain Tesson on a journey across the desolate landscape of the Tibetan plateau in search of these magnificent animals, hoping to capture them on film.

The quest is a difficult one, not just because of the rarity of the animals and the ruggedness of the terrain, but for a very mundane, practical reason. This is some of the highest land on the face of the Earth. It rises up into the clouds and, as such, it is often enveloped in them. To search for anything there is to spend much of one’s time blundering through thick fog, or else to find oneself confined to a tiny camping spot because the poor visibility means it is simply too dangerous to proceed. Through this eerie landscape, shadows roam. Yak, antelope, and less certain forms.

Even on brighter days, many of the animals here are superbly camouflaged. Munier takes photographs and only later, studying them, is able to spot what was, all along, in plain sight: a falcon whose ragged colours perfectly imitate the rocks behind it, or the eyes of their quarry itself, watching them from behind a crag. He and Tesson are acutely aware that their own attempts at camouflage are pretty hopeless, especially when a lot of the animals here navigate by scent. As such, they will see only what they are allowed to see. The further they progress, the more starkly apparent it becomes that they are in alien territory.

Slow by nature, this film is weighed down in places by a willingness to indulge its subjects’ pontifications at length despite the fact that they are often just repeating themselves. There is always plenty to attract the eye, however, even in those shifting mists, and in its quiet moments your senses will be on edge, exploring the breathtaking landscape, alert to what might be hiding there. Elsewhere, its magical qualities are brought out by way of a finely judged soundtrack by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. The latter demonstrated a gift for scoring nature films with 2001’s Winged Migration, and this is even better, perfectly capturing the sense of loneliness and awe replete in this land.

As for the snow leopard, whilst one would not wish to provide spoilers, suffice to say that patience will be rewarded and that the title will make absolute sense before the film is done. This is, however, a film as much about the journey as the discovery, and in telling its tale in such a painstaking way it gets across very clearly the rarity and vulnerability of these astonishing creatures.

Reviewed on: 29 Apr 2022
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The Velvet Queen packshot
A search for snow leopards high on the Tibetan Plateau.

Director: Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier

Writer: Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier

Starring: Vincent Munier, Sylvain Tesson

Year: 2021

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: France

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