words by renée Wilson
The documentary, which follows Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson’s attempts to observe the latent and vulnerable snow leopard, welcomes viewers to meditate on the beauty of solitude and autonomy within the natural world.
As we pass the two-year mark of a global pandemic, we are forced to reflect on an insecure world hoisted upon tired, dislocated shoulders. From political dissent to ecological calamity, the collective unconscious is reaching out for help, for answers, for relief. Hot on the trails of 2021’s blockbuster eco-fables Dune and Don’t Look Up, we’re gifted 90 minutes of balmy contemplation in the form of The Velvet Queen, which is celebrating its U.K. release date tomorrow, 29 April.
Filmed in the Tibetan highlands in 2018, The Velvet Queen follows French photographer and naturalist Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson on their odyssey to observe the latent and vulnerable snow leopard. Directed by Marie Amiguet, this documentary welds together the promise of patience and the virtue of beholding. The Velvet Queen condenses Munier and Tesson’s two month quest in the Tibetan Plateau for la bête (the beast) into 90-minutes of quiescent sierras set against a darkly pneumatic score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. Amiguet manages to evade the ostentation and fantasy often concealed within nature documentaries, and instead welcomes us to meditate on solitude, autonomy, and consciousness.
The camera wastes no time in whisking viewers away into the expansive landscape on the other side of the lens. Potentially sighting the leopard soon takes a backseat to the surrounding views: herds of bharals peppered along steep mountain slopes, the deceptively adorable Pallas’s cat, buoyant clouds transmogrifying as the breath of the mountains. Despite the limitless beauty of Tibet, indulging in this film requires patience. Amiguet and Munier forgo the neon hues and prismatic sheen of their genre predecessors, emphasizing the significance of the region’s non-leopard foliage and fauna: “Yaks come from the dawn of time: they are the totems of life in the wild, you can see them drawn on Paleolithic walls, they have never changed. It’s as though they’ve emerged, snuffling, and snorting, from a cave painting,” remarks a wide-eyed Vincent.
As the popularity of on-screen climate parables grows, we must begin to examine the technological commodification of nature.
When asked in an interview about the environmental angle of her storytelling, Marie Amiguet said, “…we didn’t want to guilt-trip people and harp on about the way things are headed in order to convey our message… We just need to be a bit humbler and more attentive.” In her humility, Amiguet grasps the spirit of the highlands as an essential catalyst as opposed to a submissive conquest for the film’s human cast.
Sylvain Tesson, while adept at adventuring, was accustomed to the fast-paced hedonism of his frequent, often extreme, travels. In 2014, after the death of his mother, Tesson fell from a roof suffering severe nerve damage to his spine. The fall left him comatose, confined to a hospital bed for months, and partially paralyzed. Following his recovery, Vincent Munier invited him on his search for the snow leopard through the Himalayas. Raised by his ecologist and activist father in the rural mountains of Vosges, France, Munier is intimate with the wisdom of Mother Earth, casually bestowing it upon his restless friend. We see Tesson’s annoyance at having to crouch down in below zero temperatures for hours at a time adjusting from “the modern frenzy of ‘everything, right now’ for the ‘probably nothing, ever’ of lying in wait.”
Occasionally distracting and contemptuous in his anecdotes, Tesson’s narration is stabilized by his guide’s child-like marvel at their surroundings. Aware of his impatience, the writer lauds Munier’s reverent calmness in the face of advancing bears, of subzero snowstorms, of nothing.
“Not everything was created for the human eye,” asserts Munier upon realizing his camera didn’t catch any footage of the leopard. It’s an assertion that encourages viewers to reimagine the sovereignty of the wild: as the popularity of on-screen climate parables grows, we must begin to examine the technological commodification of nature.
The environmental realism necessary to convey an honest depiction of the more-than-human world is in direct opposition with the aesthetics we have been force fed by the film industry. Even well-intentioned, eco-conscious movies manipulate and bolster a variety of disingenuous ideologies about the relationship between humans and non-humans. Per the capitalist Hollywood lens—a lens that prioritizes its viewers rather than its subject(s)—these films reinforce the hierarchical relationships and encroachment of beings who cannot consent.
So, then, why look at animals at all? This question was invoked in John Berger’s eponymous essay included in his anthology About Looking wherein he confronts the depreciation of animals via the human gaze throughout history—from divine beings to captive entertainment. Despite not reaching a conclusion for his question, Berger claims that due to the rise of capitalism in the 20th century and the Industrial Revolution “every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken.”
Upending the speciesism of such eco-narratives and taking cues from slow cinema, The Velvet Queen lulls its audience into profound consideration. Equipped with a four-person team, minimal camera gear, and the aid of a local Tibetan base camp, the film circumvents the negative environmental impact often associated with travelogues. Halfway through the documentary, we realize the snow leopard is merely a pretext. Minutes of scenic silence juxtaposed with the gleeful interruption of a trio of nomadic Tibetan children are meant to inspire homage, rather than pity or guilt. The splendor sings for itself.
The Velvet Queen side steps the binary of human versus nature and wades in the labor of love that is existence.
Silently echoing the tenets of ancient philosophies like animism and deep ecologists like Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Velvet Queen side steps the binary of human versus nature and wades in the labor of love that is existence. One example—Amiguet and Munier shine light on eco-anxiety by encouraging keen stillness within a culture that demands critical action.
By detaching from the either/or of hope versus hopelessness, we grant ourselves permission to be sensitive, to surrender control in the volatility of a universe that constantly reminds us it is not mute and meek. To practice loving awareness should not be reduced to a function of privilege reserved for those who can afford (financially or physically) to escape to the remotest corners of the world; but upheld as one of intimacy that helps us soothe the valid fear of a sinking ship and enable the refuge of anchors. Anchors in the shape of impermanence, loved ones, camouflage, or the kindred abrasion of an oak tree.
Amid the disquiet of a grieving Earth, The Velvet Queen proposes visceral intention. The real white whale of the film is floating within Tesson’s final address, “Revere what is in front of you. Hope for nothing. Delight in what crops up. Have faith in poetry. Be content with the world. Fight for it to remain.”