The Velvet Queen (La panthère des neiges)
(France, 92 min.)
Dir. Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier
How does one photograph a dream? Acclaimed wildlife photographer Vincent Munier invites his friend, writer Sylvain Tesson, to join him on a hunt in The Velvet Queen. The offer to Tesson extends to audiences as the friends venture through the mountains of east Tibet. Munier seeks a photograph of the rare snow leopard. The majestic beast is among the animals that continues to elude him. Watch in wonder as the friends scale rough terrain in search of the prized subject, and use innovative technology to help the hunt as Munier and Tesson scout the Himalayas and navigate terrain 4,500 metres in altitude with peaks that reach 6,000 metres. The Velvet Queen delivers a visually awesome and philosophically rich consideration of the power of the natural world and the authority one must surrender to the call of the wild.
Much of The Velvet Queen sees Munier and Tesson play the waiting game. Munier knows that the snow leopard is a silent predator, but also a skittish scaredy cat. Its sensitive ears and stealthy intuition make it nearly impossible to spot and harder to capture in a photo. The friends must simply find the most probable locations the snow leopard might frequent. They set up camp in windy blinds and wait amid freezing temperatures that drop below 20°C during the daytime. Hidden cameras triggered by motion sensors let them gather evidence without disturbing the animals that roam the rocky cliffs. They must be frozen, literally and figurative, lest they disturb the beast.
The Hunter and the Hunted
At the same time, Munier’s experience dictates the danger of hunting the hunter atop the food chain. The Velvet Queen connects this elusive quest with the photographer’s prior expeditions. Gorgeous photographs illustrate the majestic pull of the mountainous landscape, which Munier captures exquisitely through his lens, both as a still photographer and as one of the film’s cinematographers alongside Léo-Pol Jacquot and co-director Marie Amiguet.
One of Munier’s shots particularly highlights the perilous thrill of being the bait. He recalls a trip in which he photographed a beautiful hawk perched on a rocky cliff. Once the photo was taken, Munier excitedly explains the magic he saw while reviewing the shot. In a sequence that recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, the photograph changes meaning as he looks closer. The bird still sits in crisp focus centre frame, but behind it is the image’s true treasure: a snow leopard. It peers from behind the rocks, not merely looking at the bird, but beyond the feathered treat to the meatier human it could gobble up.
This photo makes the hunt of The Velvet Queen particularly intriguing. Munier already has a photo of a snow leopard checked off his bucket list, so to speak. However, his drive suggests that there’s a difference between a photo captured by chance and one shot with an artist’s eye. As the days dwindle and it seems increasingly less likely that they’ll chance upon a snow leopard, the stakes of the hunt shift. It’s not so much a quest for a perfect shot, but a test of Munier’s mastery as a wildlife photographer. The film asks audiences to consider the limits to which they’ll go to achieve their dreams, or if the pursuit of the dream is the greater reward.
Looking Outside the Frame
While Munier scans the landscape for evidence of a snow leopard, like a pawprint of a flicker of its wily tail, Tesson considers his friend’s pursuit. Philosophical voiceover ponders the relationship between humans and nature. Tesson mulls about the desire to grab the unattainable and the drive that compels some humans to run to faraway places. Animals like the leopard, or the yaks, antelopes, or shaggy Pallas’s cat, meanwhile, make the mountains their home and thrive in familiar terrain. As Tesson gazes outward, The Velvet Queen invites audiences to consider the splendour that passes one by when one trains one’s eye towards specific beauty. The snow leopard is a rare beast, yes, but there are so many majestic animals to admire in the wild. Looking, waiting, and prizing one sight above others else risks overlooking the greater goods.
Amiguet observes the two friends with an eye for the larger canvas. She, too, plays the waiting game. The Velvet Queen is a feat of observing the observers as she watches Munier and Tesson sit and wait. She’s doubly patient and stealthy, working hard to avoid disturbing them while being mindful of her role in the leopard’s surroundings. The grand cinematography conjures the larger implications of the hunt that Tesson ponders in voiceover, while haunting music by Warren Ellis evokes chills. This film demands to be seen on a big screen for the full scope of the mountains’ power.
The Velvet Queen is a rare beast that demands and rewards patience. This languidly paced expedition through the mountains summons the call of the land. One can only surrender to the power of the exquisitely shot images and join the photographer in the joy of the hunt. What an epic cat movie!
The Velvet Queen is now playing in select theatres.