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THE VELVET QUEEN (2021) review

January 21, 2022


written by: Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier
produced by: Vincent Gadelle, Bertrand Faivre and Olivier Père
directed by: Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier
rated: not rated
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: December 21, 2021 (limited) and January 21, 2022


“The Velvet Queen” follows a pair of French adventurers who are completely enraptured by solitude and being away from humans (my kinda guys right there), but mostly sharing the pursuit for an elusive Tibetan snow leopard. The documentary from Marie Amiguet is culled from footage from 2018 in the Himalayan highlands and while the focus is certainly capturing serene and treacherous landscapes inhabited by luminous creatures, I found myself equally transfixed by the two passionate humans who are on location, capturing it all while enduring high altitudes, subzero temperatures, and possibly getting way too close to certain animals in their natural habitat.

There’s definitely something engaging in beholding naturalist/professional wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, and world traveler/writer Sylvain Tesson, gleefully albeit quietly become excited as they get nearer to their goal, yet equally engaging are the reflections on humanity, mortality, and nature they share, which are picked up in their hushed discussions with each other. They feel like whispers during meditations to enhance and personalize the experience.



Much of the film emphasizes what it takes to capture amazing moments of animals in action, unbothered and in their natural habitat. As you’d expect, one has to blend in to such an environment. So, we see our two guides dressed in predominately camouflage, often sprawled out on on their abdomen or squatting behind giant rocks. But most of all, it’s clear that what it takes to do what these two are doing is time…and time takes time. In the case of Munier and Tesson (who also narrates), they cannot have time without being patient and that is something Amiguet is aware of as the director here. In fact, the act of waiting is mentioned as a solution to the chronic problem of modern society and the mental and emotional chaos that comes with it. Throughout, “The Velvet Queen” (“La Panthère des Neiges”), there are many moments where we just watch, alongside or over the shoulders of these men, and sometimes through their camera lens, and at no time does it feel like there is someone there filming them and their surroundings. Amiguet simply invites us along and offers an immersion in nature, while a subtle score from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave can occasionally be heard as if echoing through the valley and off the mountains.

The amazing part of their journey is not what they will inevitably find (a snow leopard), but rather that they truly do not know what they will encounter. They can prepare as much as possible, with the proper equipment, food, and shelter, for what they are about to do, but they will still unprepared for what they see. Indeed, they will be just as awestruck capturing a herd of bharal (the blue sheep native to the high Himalayas), a saker falcon in flight, or a Palla’s cat ascending craggy terrain, as they are silenced by the sight of thin clouds weaving their way through a valley. Considering the elements and ground the must cover, it takes a combination of steely resolve and undeterred resilience to push through and a daily leap of faith. But, if they position themselves just right and wait and look, animals will be revealed, crawling out from behind a rock or landing on a branch…it’s thrilling and so worth it.



Throughout their tenure, the two men bond over conversation and silence and how we get so close to them is one of the more surprising aspects of “The Velvet Queen”, since going in we think this is chiefly a nature doc. It’s during their round-the-clock surveillance that we learn the subtle differences between them – Munier the well-versed traveler who’s one with nature and Tesson (author of The Art of Patience – Seeking the Snow Leopard, a successful book about the events of this film), the more artistic and contemplative of the two, especially when he pontificates, “We had to accept the depressing idea the earth reeks of humans,” his melodramatic observation on man as a deteriorating force in the world. Tesson has a romanticism about him as he talks about abandoning possessions and escaping the noise and decay of civilization, content with an uncompromised wilderness and a sketchbook. His nonlinear narration, interjected with poetry, as he includes snippets of East Asian spirituality, teaching of Hindu scriptures, and poignant observations. There is this mantra that he finds and latches on to, “Revere what is in front of us; hope for nothing; delight in what crops up; have faith in poetry; be content with the world; fight for it to remain,” which is repeated until the documentary’s conclusion as if to provide a parting memory verse for viewers.

When we finally witness the pair encounter a snow leopard, the moment becomes more about how the animal has allowed them to be there in this space and then how they are being the ones being studied. There’s a frozen chill and out-of-body moment when you realize this wild feline is studying. It lives there and is now observing unexpected visitors. They will leave and the creature will remain, captured on film. It’s that simple and it’s also simply beautiful.

Although we are taken to the far east, the film is more akin to a meditation than it is a travelogue experience. Both men would rather be here, in this environment, next to the one person who probably understands them best, rather than a group of people or a room full of strangers. It’s the classic call of the wild that offers a chance to reclaim a connection with the beautiful and rugged world, and that acclimation is a healing that “The Velvet Queen” offers.

I’m looking forward to watching this again, but on a big screen…maybe you’d like to join me? If you’re in the west suburbs of Chicago on Monday February 28th, you can join me for a discussion of it after the screening. Details can be found here.





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