MOVIE OF THE WEEK December 31, 2021: THE VELVET QUEEN
Introspective and breathtakingly beautiful, Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s documentary The Velvet Queen is about much more than tracking down the elusive snow leopard — although the quest to film that majestic beast is central to the story. In capturing the musings of Munier, an award-winning wildlife photographer, and novelist Sylvain Tesson as they pursue the leopard in the mountains of Tibet, the film offers insight into the power of patience, resilience, and determination.
The two men have plenty of time to wax philosophical about nature, humanity, and the relationship between the two while they trek through the craggy landscapes of the Tibetan highlands, searching for likely spots to set up a blind and wait to see if they strike leopard gold. Along the way, they encounter many other animals — foxes, birds, yaks, bharals, and, memorably, the manul (also known as Pallas’s Cat) — that make this often-harsh environment their home. They also interact with some of the people who live in this remote part of the world, forging connections and finding common ground.
The film is full of indelible images, from windswept peaks and towering clouds to impossibly intimate shots of animals living their lives in one of the ever-fewer parts of the world that still feels authentically wild. Munier shares the “aha!” feeling of spotting creatures who blend into their home territory so well that finally seeing them is a bit like mastering one of those hidden-eye puzzles. And he tells a memorable story about the time he essentially got photobombed by a snow leopard while filming a falcon — but didn’t realize it for several weeks.
When he and Tesson, on the verge of having to wrap up their expedition, finally do cross paths with their tail-waving quarry, it’s exciting — but also almost secondary to the insights they’ve shared, not only about their inner selves, but also about humanity’s threat to the majesty of nature (“the Earth reeks of humans,” Tesson observes at one point). The combination of his evocative prose and Munier and Amiguet’s stunning cinematography results in a “wildlife documentary” that’s much deeper and more thought-provoking than others in the genre. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King: One of the most breathtaking documentaries of this or any year, The Velvet Queen puts the viewer in the middle of the misty, expansive mountains of Tibet. We follow naturalist and photographer Vincent Munier and journalist Sylvain Tesson on their quest to maybe glimpse what Tesson calls “the holy grail”: the elusive snow leopard in its natural habitat. Directed by Munier and Marie Amiguet with an atmospheric score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the film’s meditative, lyrical power and stark, sumptuous landscape photography are reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and Wim Wenders’ The Salt of the Earth (2014) about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Munier and Tesson wait patiently in solitude, discreetly holed up in caves or on cliffs so they do not disturb the wildlife. The film is a poetic musing on how humans interact with the natural world and how patient, mindful observation can lead to profound moments of beauty. Animals and birds do appear — yaks, owls, bears, a Tibetan fox and, yes, eventually, the snow leopard. It is a moment so majestic and stunning that it moves the men to tears and probably the audience, too.
Susan Wloszczyna: There is plenty of beauty as well as a procession of enchanting wild beasts in Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s nature doc The Velvet Queen, whose majestic title refers to the elusive predatory creature known as a snow leopard. Those in pursuit of this regal cat includes photographer and co-director Munier along with his writer buddy Sylvain Tesson, who published a book about their journey over 5,000 meters up in the air among the chilly terrain of Tibet’s soaring peaks, The Art of Patience – Seeking the Snow Leopard. Sadly, this glorious Asian diva, whose long spotted tail acts like a furry train behind her, has become endangered due to poaching and environmental issues. Read full review.
Pam Grady: “Nature documentary” is a genre unto itself and at first glance, The Velvet Queen might appear to be just that as photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson hike through Tibet in search of the rare and elusive snow leopard. But this film by Munier and co-director Marie Amiguet is so much more than a mere record of an expedition and the fauna that the travelers encounter on their quest. It is a poem, an ode to nature at its most elemental. It is a plea for all of us to slow down and note the animal world around, no matter where we might be. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale The current state of the world suggests we’d be ill advised to watch a documentary about the loss of yet another majestic animal to extinction. The Velvet Queen, or La Panthère des Neiges, as it’s called in its country of origin, France, is absolutely nothing like that. This documentary is really a celebration of the grandeur and beauty of Tibet and all its creatures, but especially the rare, elusive, beautiful beast, the snow leopard. It makes for joyful and meditative viewing, which for some will be exactly what is needed at this reflective time of the year. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin The Velvet Queen is an absolutely gorgeous (I’m not exaggerating) documentary that follows renowned and dedicated (and perhaps obsessive) wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and his companion in adventure, novelist Sylvain Tesson, as they traverse the desolate frozen highlands of Tibet in search of an extremely elusive (and very rare) snow leopard. The film is a celebration of nature and an inspiring homage to two humans who truly respect it.
Marilyn Ferdinand Despite the many works of beauty and wonder human beings have created over the centuries, nature is, by far, the greatest show on earth. It is a privilege to go along with wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, novelist and explorer Sylvain Tesson, and the small camera crew of The Velvet Queen as they explore the breathtaking Tibetan plateau hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. Munier is so attuned to the ways of wildlife that he can spot the smallest movement, read the terrain, interpret animal behavior, and spend hours in one spot patiently waiting for the big cat to appear. Tesson, more acculturated to city life, uses his writing gifts to record what he sees, hears, and feels as civilization fades and time melts away. For those of us who love the natural world, The Velvet Queen reminds us why we must not to give up the fight to protect and preserve it
Nell Minow: The Velvet Queen is a moving and perspective-shifting combination of stunning images of nature and a perceptive, intimate look at the human spirit.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s mesmerizing documentary The Velvet Queen chronicles renowned French nature photographer (Munier) and his companion, adventurer and novelist Sylvain Tesson’s mission high on the Tibetan plateau to track and photograph an elusive snow leopard and other animals. The gorgeous cinematography is accompanied by an equally as beautiful score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, creating a memorable, meditative, and poetic film about the transcendence of nature.
Liz Whittemore Boasting some of the most breathtaking images of rarely photographed landscape and fauna, The Velvet Queen is unlike anything my eyes have ever seen before. In the passion and mission of two men, mixed with the philosophy of slow down and wait, the film is much more than a nature documentary. Within its lesson of stillness, we learn to appreciate the pure splendor of life. A sumptuous score engulfs you with timeless, melancholy, and whimsical qualities. As Vincent and Sylvain lie in wait, their predominantly hushed tones add to the soothing effect of the viewing experience. The Velvet Queen will leave you enamored with all creation and the human experience. It’s a surprising and awe-inspiring watch.
Cate Marquis Two men, wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and novelist Sylvain Tesson, set out on a wilderness quest to photograph the elusive snow leopard in the Himalayan Mountains, in the gorgeous nature documentary The Velvet Queen. As they search for the rare, secretive leopards, they film majestic mountain views, encounter yaks, Tibetan foxes, and antelope, and talk about nature, man’s place in the world, their work, life, and more. Sometimes it is about the journey as much as the goal, as this documentary filled with breath-taking images illustrates so well.
Title: The Velvet Queen
Directors: Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier
Release Date: December 22, 2021
Running Time: 92 minutes
Language: French with English subtitles
Distribution Company: Oscilloscope Laboratories
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
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Edited by Jennifer Merin