The Velvet Queen: Review
On the face of things, The Velvet Queen seems like just another nature documentary. It is indeed that, but also so much more. It is the best nature documentary I have seen in quite a long time. Vincent Munier, a nature photographer at the top of his profession, is joined by Sylvain Tesson, an adventurer and novelist, in a quest to photograph the rare and solitary Tibetan snow leopard. High up on the Tibetan plateau, in subzero temperatures, Munier and Tesson slowly track and wait for the furtive leopard.
Undoubtedly, The Velvet Queen is a visual treat. The Tibetan plateau and the animals that inhabit said plateau are majestic. When Munier captures photographs or video of the animals, it is as if Divinity were staring at us. But what makes The Velvet Queen a superlative work are the ruminations shared by Munier and Tesson, ruminations conveyed by way of whispers so as to not scare off the animals. Munier and Tesson reveal themselves to be naturalists, philosophers, and above all, poets.
Munier and Tesson perfectly complement each other. Tesson sees Munier as a sort of spiritual guru of the Tibetan plateau, which truth be told; given the insights he has gained after much time spent on the plateau, his commentary on the hustle and bustle of life in big cities, on contemporary late-capitalist societies, and on human indifference toward the natural world; Tesson does indeed fit the role of guru, exuding an aura of enlightenment. For Munier, going back to France and listening to the news feels like witnessing an absurd spectacle. As he puts it, “In a city I am a different man, as if I were playing a role.” Munier teaches Tesson how to be attentive, how to be patient, and above all, teaches him to catch the visual details on the plain that escape the untrained city eye.
He teaches Tesson to observe; it is a master class in the training of the eye. Tesson, however, is no mere student. Tesson’s narration in The Velvet Queen is deeply profound. His soothing voice is more Herzog-esque, and more transcendental than Werner Herzog’s narrations of his own nature documentaries. And it is precisely Herzog’s documentaries that serve as an apt comparison. Herzog’s signature is the unscripted veering off, the chance encounter, the animal that comes into the frame out of nowhere. The Velvet Queen surprises us in the same way. The animals surprise us at every corner. Tibetan children appear out of nowhere and greet Munier and Tesson with joy and playfulness. Herzog himself never captured such moments on film, moments that fill The Velvet Queen’s runtime.
The Velvet Queen was codirected by Marie Amiguet and Munier himself. Please do yourself a favor and try to catch it on a big screen. It is much too beautiful a work to be seen on a computer—as was unfortunately the case for me. There are moments of sublime beauty that can only be appreciated by way of the macro-images offered by the big screen. There are even moments of tension—as when a yak teeters on the possibility of charging Munier and Tesson. More than anything, The Velvet Queen offers us a much-needed antidote to our hustle and bustle, our fractured attention span, our inability to appreciate things.
The animals in The Velvet Queen are “vessels suspended in time.” And it is patience versus hastiness, the natural world versus the artificial contemporary world that serve as the dichotomies at the center of The Velvet Queen. One cannot help but feel that technology, adverts, and the contemporary world overpromise and underdeliver in terms of human fulfillment. Nature, on the other hand, seemingly under-promises given its slow pace; but, if we learn to be patient, can overdeliver in unimaginable ways.
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