The Velvet Queen – Film Review

An evocative, stunningly photographed cinematic journey to the corner of the world rarely seen by humans, this is more than your typical nature documentary.

I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough nature documentaries, but The Velvet Queen is a very different beast, more interested in highlighting the incredible aesthetic beauty of the landscape and creatures that inhabit it, rather than educational information or natural science. It’s an account of a photography expedition undertaken by French travel writer Sylvain Tesson and renowned wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, who travel to the remote parts of Tibet in search of an elusive king of the mountains, the magnificent snow leopard.

Tesson is a huge admirer of Munier’s method, called “the blind”, which essentially consists of finding a discreet spot in the terrain and waiting for hours or even days, hoping that the animals will show up and give him their best angle. It is not done completely blindly or randomly, and involves a solid understanding of the animal’s habits and hunting patterns, but this process does require immense reserves of patience. Most people would probably find it excruciating, however for some it’s a rewarding, meditative experience. For Tesson, it drives home the value and virtue of patience.

This pristine, starkly beautiful wilderness is almost completely untouched by the human society, save for the few Tibetan nomads who call it home. Though the snow leopard is the duo’s ultimate Holy Grail, they are also rewarded with the sightings of yaks, antelopes, wolves, bears, the striking Tibetan fox, and my personal favourite, the ridiculously fluffy yet ferocious Pallas’s cat, whose expressive gaze serves a warning: try to pet me and I’ll tear your head off. When the duo’s efforts are finally rewarded with the appearance of the elegant, majestic beast, it’s a truly uplifting, cathartic moment.

Whether or not you’re an animal lover, the film’s imagery, set to the haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is absolutely gorgeous, capturing the hidden world of natural tranquillity and magic that seems to exist in suspended time. There’s a primal quality about this kind of vast, desolate landscape that touches something deep inside me. Somehow it’s comforting to know that there’s an oblivious world out there that doesn’t care one bit about the humans, and simply goes on the way it has for thousands of years.

As a writer, Tesson provides a narration that’s rather more poetic than your usual documentary, and he’s very much intrigued by his companion’s nature-centred view. Munier openly laments the disconnect between the nature and humankind, and the departure of the modern society from the original, pure and wild way of living. Personally I can’t help but feel that this view rather idealises what in reality is a harsh, unforgiving and often very brief existence, but that’s not to say that it completely lacks merit. There’s a lot to be gained from the art of slowing down, paying attention to the natural world around us, and finding solace in the beauty of landscapes and animals.

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