The Velvet Queen is quite unlike any other wildlife film

Cannes prizewinner features trio’s search for the regal snow leopard of the title

Velvet Queen
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Director: Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Vincent Munier, Sylvian Tesson
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins

Something of a sensation in France, where this handsome nature documentary won the inaugural Climate prize at Cannes, was named best documentary at both the Lumières and César Awards, and scared up 500,000 cinema admissions in six weeks, The Velvet Queen is quite unlike any other wildlife film.

Co-director, co-writer and cinematographer Marie Amiguet remains behind the camera, unacknowledged by her co-director, the world-renowned wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, and his onscreen travelling companion, the writer Sylvian Tesson, while the trio search for the regal snow leopard of the title.

As they scour the nooks and crannies of a vast, snowy Napalese landscape, they encounter birds, bears, Tibetan foxes and such lesser-spotted creatures as the Bharal, the Pallas’s cat and the Saker falcon, without glimpsing so much as a panther’s whisker. Understated, yet dramatic original music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compliments the sudden animal motions that appear, as if by magic, against barren terrain.

Eaten by wolves

Robust local supporting characters include an eight-year-old who can easily hack into the playlist on Tesson’s mobile phone, three descending bears and two gnarly nomads who, during the film’s opening gambit, stare out over the sublime Tibetan tableaux and wonder aloud if the film’s crew have been eaten by wolves.

One can’t help but think, perservely, of John Berger’s 1972 observation in the seminal Ways of Seeing, that “according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” It’s an interesting idea for a film in which male observers seek an elusive female, all the while pondering their quest, as an unseen female watches on. Ways of Seeing a Snow Leopard.

‘Prehistory wept’

Munier, who has been named the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year three years in a row, remains quietly reverential; Tesson, who wrote a book about the events depicted within the film called The Art of Patience; Seeking the Snow Leopard, is garrulous and philosophical. (Sample book chapter: “Prehistory wept, and each tear was a yak.”) Those with allergies to French musing may not be amused.

By the time we finally see the leading lady, La Panthère des Neiges – as the film was called at home – has long since privileged the journey over the destination.

“Revere what is in front of us,” concludes Tesson. “Hope for nothing; delight in what crops up; have faith in poetry; be content with the world; fight for it to remain.”