Cinema as escapism is nothing new, but how we choose to transport ourselves through film can mean different things to different people. The last film I saw on the big screen before the March 2020 nationwide lockdown was a stunning 70mm print of Hello, Dolly at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, and I was absolutely, undeniably transported to a technicolor wonderland of lush costumes and grand musical numbers. It was divine, and clearly something I vividly remember. But that transportation doesn’t always take the form a big-budget, Barbra Streisand-starring, Gene Kelly-directed affair. Sometimes, it’s a 92-minute nature documentary that does the trick, taking us far away from the many, many worries of our current moment as we follow a wildlife photographer and an adventure writer on a journey to find some of the most elusive and breathtaking creatures in the vast Tibetan mountains.
Co-directed by Marie Amiguet, The Velvet Queen is a slim but stirring film about Vincent Munier (the wildlife photographer, and the film’s other co-director) and Sylvain Tesson (the author), a pair who combine their passions to go on an adventure of both of their lifetimes, hiking through unforgiving landscapes and freezing temperatures to capture photos of the snow leopards who make their home in the mountains. With gentle, slow cinematography that relishes in the rough beauty of their surroundings and an unobtrusive (if sometimes heavy-handed) narration, the film offers a glimpse into the kind of work Munier and Tesson do and what it takes to do it. There is little glamour to their chosen field, as they bundle up in wools sweaters and heavy parkas, strap up with camera gear and survival tools and chart their path through the unforgiving wilderness where herds of yak, families of bears, countless birds and even the occasional snow leopard roam free. Some of the film’s sweetest moments are when the explorers rest and regroup with locals, the children of these families all smiles and giggles around these kind strangers as they try to understand each other through the photos and footage they’ve captured.
But more than that, the film is an invitation to explore what feels like at times an entirely different planet, one where cold winds and heavy snow bear down on the rolling, rocky mountainsides, the animals look nothing like what you see at Lincoln Park Zoo (have you ever heard of the Pallas’ Cat? Neither had I), and every inch of the ecosystem seems untouched by human interference. Amiguet, Munier and additional cinematographer Léo-Pol Jacquot capture stunning visuals, and though the landscape is far from verdant, it’s nevertheless teeming with life and activity, imposing yaks grazing for dinner or sly, quick foxes nabbing a rodent for a snack. In their search for the snow leopard, Munier and Tesson station a digital camera in an outcropping of rocks where they can record the comings and goings of all the wildlife at all hours; it’s like the rugged wilderness version of a front door camera, and it’s wonderful. When they reveal the various footage the camera captures, it’s a nearly euphoric moment—for them, but also very much for us.
Tesson is our narrator, and his flourish for words is on full display in the musings he offers throughout, as they lean more into the philosophical than the topical. David Attenborough he is not, and his insistence on telling us what to think and feel as we take in the breathtaking visuals is possibly the only distraction from an otherwise beautifully crafted film. When he and his collaborators allow us to simply be there with them in silent vigilance as they wait for the next majestic creature to come around the mountain ridge, it’s something nearing brilliance. The Velvet Queen is similar to many nature films in many ways, but it stands alone as a thrilling peek into this very specific place on the planet at this very specific time in our global history. And focused as it is through the lens of these two men who’ve dedicated their lives to experiencing that side of our world firsthand—and documenting it along the way—the film becomes an engrossing adventure, one that might just transport you.
The Velvet Queen is now playing at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.
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