‘The Velvet Queen’ Review: A Quietly Spellbinding Nature Doc


A svelte, slinky determine in noticed silvery blond, the snow leopard is without doubt one of the nice haughty glamazons of the animal kingdom — a standing suitably acknowledged within the English-language title of “The Velvet Queen,” French docmaker Marie Amiguet’s beautiful, sudden display ode to the little-seen feline. (The unique French title is the quite extra prosaic “La panthère des neiges.”) Yet if the title implies the naturalist’s equal of diva worship, the movie’s strategy surprises us, fixating much less on the furry dazzle of the snow leopard in her pure Tibetan habitat than on the very act of taking a look at nature within the first place. Joining two compatriots — main wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and adventurer Sylvain Tesson — on an arduous trek to catch sight of the beast, the doc thoughtfully ponders the conflicted nature of a one-way relationship between watcher and watched.

More art-house than Animal Planet, full with a sparsely atmospheric rating by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this upcoming Oscilloscope launch (which appropriately premiered in Cannes’ new eco-conscious Cinema for the Climate program) ought to discover a devoted viewers with out turning into a “My Octopus Teacher”-level phenomenon. One suspects its aloof topic received’t thoughts. Man, in any case, is the first motive the queen in query has develop into so elusive, with poaching and environmental destruction having slashed Asia’s snow leopard inhabitants to grimly endangered ranges. And with man, in flip, having subsequently granted her a sort of mythic standing for that rarity, “The Velvet Queen” tacitly wonders simply what the cat owes her human admirers.

It’s that wry, self-effacing consciousness that lends an endearingly quixotic air to Munier and Tesson’s quest, and that separates the movie from extra plainly spectacle-driven nature documentaries of its ilk. For one factor, Amiguet — a first-time director who beforehand shot the comparably themed, wolf-oriented 2016 documentary “La vallée des loups” — has little curiosity within the iridescent, awe-driven aesthetic gloss so widespread in its style. There’s no magic-hour varnish utilized to the forbiddingly rugged, taupe-hued vistas of the Tibetan Highlands, the appreciable fantastic thing about which nonetheless doesn’t demand to be framed.

Rather, it’s a seemingly barren panorama that requires persistence from the onlooker, its manifold types of life revealing themselves slowly and subtly, typically in canny camouflage. Munier and Tesson study as a lot, as their repeatedly annoyed journey to search out the snow leopard yields different discoveries and factors of fascination alongside the best way, simply as long as they adapt to the tempo of their environment. “Waiting was a prayer,” Munier observes, in a generally eccentrically summary voiceover that he co-scripted with the director. “If nothing came, we just hadn’t looked at it properly.”

And so the viewers learns to look at the identical manner, reveling in different sights, sounds and lifeforms not marketed by the title, because the eponymous monarch retains us ready. An prolonged take a look at a Tiberan antelope, or a extra fleeting one on the lithe, eternally scowling Tibetan fox, is its personal reward; even a tiny, orange-breasted lark turns into regal underneath the filmmakers’ collective gaze, which regularly drinks in a complete ecosystem. Humanity doesn’t get completely brief shrift both, as Munier and Tesson’s dealings with the area’s locals — adults and youngsters alike, who don’t exoticize their native wildlife in the identical manner — account for a few of the movie’s wittiest materials.

But what of the leopard? After a number of near-misses and chilly trails, our explorers start to simply accept that it could have evaded them. “Not everything was created for the human eye,” Munier narrates. That can be a useful takeaway from the train, although “The Velvet Queen” isn’t so austere or perverse as to disclaim us some closure, and with a primary glimpse of a tail coyly curling out from behind a rock formation, the massive cat is finally granted a real display siren’s entrance. She’s magnificent, in fact, however by this time is of a bit together with her unusual, seductive surroundings. Amiguet’s elegant, uncommon documentary shifts the position of the game-spotter from that of non-violent hunter — in pursuit of 1 prized goal — to passive however duly wide-eyed observer, accepting but in addition appreciating the boundaries of our entry.