By David D’Arcy
The Velvet Queen, elegantly directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, is a vivid chronicle of an arduous journey, old-fashioned but visually high-tech.
The Velvet Queen, directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier.
The majestic Tibetan landscape where The Velvet Queen is filmed looks as unforgiving as what you might find on an empty distant planet, which it often resembles. There’s not much water or oxygen at that high elevation, and barely any vegetation. It’s bitter cold, the winds are punishing and food needs to be carried in, a special hardship for a French film crew.
Yet these stark mountains are home to a hardy mix of local species, many of them endangered, from antelopes and bears to foxes. The animals blend into the landscape to the point of being invisible. They are camouflaged so effectively that the film’s narrator, Sylvain Tesson, says that the rare humans who venture there may not see much at first. Yet he’s acutely aware that animals are watching him.
The Velvet Queen, elegantly directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, is a vivid chronicle of an arduous journey, old-fashioned but visually high-tech, distilled from an account of that expedition by Sylvain Tesson, a thoughtful and prolific French travel writer whose bestselling books win literary prizes. Munier, who takes still photographs while serving as Tesson’s constant interlocutor, is credited with the “idea” for the film. If that division of labor sounds cumbersome, the documentary doesn’t show it.
The purpose of this trip is to find the elusive rare snow leopard, which is the original title of this documentary – in French it is La Panthère des Neiges (or “The Snow Panther”). Tesson’s book’s title, in English, is The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet. This volume should not be confused with The Snow Leopard, American writer Peter Matthiesson’s meditative tale from 1973, a fusion of close observation and Buddhist introspection. Note that Tesson’s title is in the feminine. Also bear in mind the advice from Goethe, another travel writer, that “one travels, not to arrive, but to travel.” It is a recognition that what one finds might not be what one is seeking.
An inevitable part of tracking the snow leopard, or trying to, is waiting. Thus other animals take up much of the film. Tesson and Munier talk while they wait; they study tracks in the earth, speculate about the changeable winds, and guess the intentions of the various creatures who cross their paths. They also long for a lost era of harmony (if one ever existed) between men and other species. Those conversations are haikus compared to the extended speculations that readers will find in Tesson’s 2019 book.
In grand landscapes like these, the scenery speaks for itself, with the French film crew taking deep breaths – some registering awe, others just gulps of oxygen. The ridges atop valleys are a mere 5000 meters (more than 15 thousand feet); the valleys that aren’t massive crevices are august flat expanses. The travelers are understandably struck by the dramatic spectacle of the mountains, as viewers will be, but they’re more interested in the wildlife – from wild yaks that seem to have walked out of prehistory to tiny mice and birds hunted by foxes and furry mountain cats. Tesson and Munier view these creatures in their habitat with the kind of wonder that you will find in chronicles of an 18th century explorers.
Don’t expect any sentimentality about nature at this elevation. The film begins with an overhead drone shot, high above a herd of yaks moving through a valley. A pack of wolves descends from the hills, separating the vulnerable ones while preventing the mature animals from defending them. It’s brutal and bloody. The yaks move on, leaving the dead behind.
Drone footage, used sparingly, is one of many visual textures woven into The Velvet Queen. Amiguet and Munier are deft (and determined) at filming from long distances. You wait with them to see if what looks like movement around a boulder is a large animal. In one case, it turned out to be three bears. In another, mountain sheep emerged and moved diagonally down a hillside like a patterned vision from the work of M. C. Escher. “Patience is the supreme virtue, the most elegant, the most forgotten,” declares Tesson. And, on days when even his patience gives out, the team sets up cameras to record animals that might be passing through. Night vision produces some wondrous sights from close range.
Amiguet is described in French as a director of films animaliers, a term that links her to painters in the 19th century called peintres animaliers, who specialized in animal subjects, such as horses and oxen. Most of the creatures we meet here aren’t domestic, but that doesn’t stop the camera from zooming in to make them seem close. Mountain sheep peering into crevices are dazzlingly graceful. Wild yaks seem to stare into the distant lens; they are far too large for the frame, as massively iconic as they are tangible. The late Chuck Close, who painted more human pores at point-black range than anyone of his time, would have been jealous of Munier’s still pictures
Beyond its affinities with 18th century travel literature, it’s striking how French this film feels. Bear in mind that the characters in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth began their quest in the chilly and then-unknown (to the French) icy volcanic expanses of Iceland. There are moments in The Velvet Queen — as when Amiguet’s camera ponders the vast silent valleys — that recall the serenity of desert scenes in the writings of Antoine de St. Exupery. As does Tesson’s appeal for the merit of patience. Combine the film’s search for an elusive beast with seat-of-your-pants tracking and Tesson and Munier’s unanswered questioning and you have a nature doc haunted by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which he wrote in French Bearded, in clothes frayed by the rocks and weather, our two travelers look like tramps waiting for whatever turns up.
The snow leopard does appear but, as Beckett might have suspected, the travelers must be content with glimpsing the luxuriantly furred animal — they don’t meet it. Sorry for the spoiler. I included it in the hope that the promise of seeing a snow leopard on screen will lure Art Fuse readers into theaters for a film that is often sublime. The documentary’s inexplicable title in English won’t do that.
Naturalists witnessing nature under siege, Tesson and Munier don’t want to own a snow leopard, buy it, trap it, shoot it or wear its skin. Fearing that tourists and hunters will want to do otherwise, Tesson won’t say where exactly The Velvet Queen was filmed. Endangered animals and their habitats are endangered enough.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.