The Velvet Queen takes viewers on a quasi-mystical, indulgent search for a snow leopard

Writer Sylvain Tesson and wildlife photographer Vincent Munier track the high plains of Tibet in search of an elusive snow leopard for a nature documentary that loses itself in excessive philosophising.

29 April 2022

By Jonathan Romney

The Velvet Queen (2022)The Velvet Queen (2022) © Courtesy of Haut et Court/Filmcoopi
Sight and Sound

► The Velvet Queen is in UK cinemas now. 

Wildlife photographer Vincent Munier has been criticised, he says in The Velvet Queen, for focusing on the beauty of nature, rather than showing its ugliness. But this documentary, which he has co- directed with Marie Amiguet, could hardly be accused of over-aestheticising the world it explores. Its Tibetan plains are austerely imposing, and have a way of hiding their mysteries. Some of the most memorable images – both Amiguet and Munier are the cinematographers, while Amiguet also co-edits – are of invisibility, or near-invisibility.

Dense white mist leaves animals as hazy masses, all but imperceptible; the snow leopard of the title seems to materialise from the patterns of a rocky landscape, then to dissolve back into them, so perfect is the creature’s camouflage (the English title, incidentally, seems superfluously exotic: in French, it is simply La anthère des neiges, the renaming presumably intended to avoid confusion with Peter Matthiessen’s similarly themed 1978 book The Snow Leopard).

The images are striking, not to say revelatory. Often, animals are caught just in the right moment and position: two horns appear over a crest of land, signalling the presence of an antelope; long pale lines of cattle weave across grassy hillsides. In a sequence of still photos, wild yaks emerge as monumental, altogether primeval presences.

What’s behind these images is, above all, patience. In The Velvet Queen, waiting takes on an almost mystical dimension, certainly as expressed by Sylvain Tesson, the writer who is Munier’s companion on his journey, and who documented it in his acclaimed 2019 book The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet.

Tesson’s voice-over describes Munier’s habitual use of the ‘blind’, or hide, to wait for animals which may never come: as Tesson puts it, Munier’s ethic, in his commitment to the long wait, replaces the contemporary mode of the “right-now” with that of the “most- likely-nothing-ever”. But the two men are aware that they are observed as much as observing. One extraordinary still shows the leopard staring intently from behind a rock, unsuspected – something Munier only saw belatedly when re-examining the shot.

Tesson’s presence gives Munier an interlocutor, and allows him to speak laconically but enthusiastically about his methods and what his experiences afford him: above all, a direct experience of the harmony he finds in nature. The emphasis, of course, is very much on European travellers’ quasi-mystical experience of the wild, something not quite undercut by sequences of the two men hanging out with amused local children.

Tesson saddles the film with much philosophising, of a kind that may be captivating on the page but which, spoken aloud, could almost be a parody of the musings of a French travel writer. “The animal is a key,” he ponders. “On the other side of the door… the incommunicable.” Or, gazing at the yaks, “They were totems, sent down through the ages… Prehistory wept, and each tear was a yak.”

Much of the spoken content feels not just superfluous but actually blocks our response to the images, telling us what to feel – even when it’s as simple as the two men, faced with the sight of a mother bear and two cubs, gasping, “C’est magnifique.” The film also suffers from the occasional iffy subtitle: “a feelgood landscape” rather than simply “a landscape that makes you feel good”.

The Velvet Queen (2022)
The Velvet Queen (2022)
© Courtesy of Haut et Court/Filmcoopi

Equally intrusive is the score by Warren Ellis, with vocal contributions from long-term collaborator Nick Cave. Clearly, their presence in the credits will attract viewers, something not to be scorned in the current economics of documentary. And indeed, Ellis’s music is elegantly evocative and mysterious, especially in the passages where he plays lyrically chilly violin, or in sequences where blurred animal images are accompanied by instruments recorded back- wards, eerily suggesting time slowed down or reversed, apt for a stretch of the film in which the two men seem to return magically to a pre-human moment, when they discover that the cave they’re hiding in has been used as a shelter by bears.

The problem is that Amiguet and Munier don’t know when to hold back on the music, laying it on extensively for overt emotional cues, too rarely letting silence speak: something especially damaging when it obscures the eloquent-in-itself clatter of deer’s antlers in a fight. Cave’s sepulchral singing over the end credits will be a plus for his fans, although Tesson’s lyrics (“The world is a bush full of fiery eyes”) take the pantheistic zeal a little far.

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