Day three of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival was spent watching THE VELVET QUEEN, a spectacular nature documentary. It’s a film that’s easy to recommend, its strengths being plenty and evident in every frame.
THE VELVET QUEEN documents a trip to the Tibetan highlands as nature photographer Vincent Munier is assisted by writer Sylvain Tesson in a quest to capture the elusive snow leopard on camera and with their own eyes. They’re aided by the unseen, except in a cartoon drawing, and unheard Marie Aniguet who co-directs the film and shoots a lot of the footage. Sylvain Tesson narrates as a newcomer to Munier’s methods, a man used to the frantic life of city life and the expectations that things happen on schedule and on demand. Munier’s profession is one of patience, blending in through the use of blinds and camouflage, and living with the fact that he can do everything right and perhaps never catch site of the snow leopard. (Spoiler: his and the audience’s patience is ultimately rewarded as shown on the advertising materials.)
Frankly THE VELVET QUEEN is one of the crown jewels of what the digital revolution has brought to filmmaking. The ability to take a high quality camera anywhere, without a significant crew, has opened up much of the world. The landscapes captured in THE VELVET QUEEN are majestic, stretching as far as the camera and eye can see. It’s an arid location where every movement or gust of wind stirs up a cloud of dust or snow. The isolation is evident. And, yet, life exists here with bhirral, wild yaks, bears, Pallas cats, vultures, rabbits, and all manner of wildlife. Many of which no doubt aren’t seen, but register the presence of man. Accompanied by music from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, THE VELVET QUEEN is a spectacular audio visual experience and deserves to be seen on big a screen as possible.
The men present are clearly at both ends of the spectrum. Vincent Munier is patient and lets his photographs do the speaking for him. There’s a quiet passion that forms his profession of nature photographer and Sylvain Tesson draws out some of that into words. Sylvain Tesson, on the other hand, is a man of many thoughts and words and constantly jots down his observations in a notebook. The arc in the film is watching Sylvain be won over by Munier’s methods and learning patience and accepting the wonder of things before him. The snow leopard is something of the great white whale that both are pursuing, almost invisible in the landscape and clearly wilier. The climax of the final encounter is the reward of the journey and awe inspiring.
There’s not much to read into THE VELVET QUEEN. It pretty much tells you its every thought and lessons to be gleaned. But, even though it may not be subtle, it doesn’t mean that those observations and lessons are from the heart and worth pondering. It’s thesis about patience and observing the wonder of what is right in front of you with no expectations or demands is no less potent because it is spelled out. Especially as every spectacularly filmed frame of the movie gives truth to those lessons.
Even though THE VELVET QUEEN is available for VOD rental on several platforms, you would be well rewarded to see it on the big screen. THE VELVET QUEEN plays once more at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival on May 4, 2022 at 1:15 pm at the Avalon Theater. The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 21, 2022 until May 5, 2022. You can get tickets at mkefilm.org.