‘The Velvet Queen’ review: Two men seek the elusive snow leopard in this stunning documentary

Oscilloscope Laboratories

French wildlife photographer Vincent Munier takes “In the Forest of Siberia” novelist Sylvain Tesson along on a trek to the Tibetan plateau to try to capture the rarely seen snow leopard on camera in this stunningly beautiful documentary co-directed by Munier and Marie Amiguet.

Their goal is a difficult one: The snow leopard – in French, la panthère des neiges – has a worldwide population that numbers only in the 1000s, and blends in so thoroughly to the background of reddish rocks and snow, it’s known as “the ghost of the mountains.”

And keeping watch in a blind, where they watch for animals without spooking them, can take hours in near-zero or sub-zero temperatures.

You might almost forget the documentary, which is in French with English subtitles, is supposed to be about the snow leopard, as all the other animals they encounter along the way are photographed in such stunning detail. 

A Pallas’s cat in The Velvet Queen

Among the animals caught on camera are bharals (aka blue sheep), Pallas’s cats, Tibetan foxes, Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan ponies, rabbits, and birds including owls and saker falcons.

Munier knows them all and helpfully points them out to Sylvain, who narrates the film with poetic and philosophical observations. Says Sylvain in voiceover: “Munier had made the blind both his aesthetic and his philosophy. His motto: Scorn pain, ignore time, and never doubt you’ll get what you desire.”

Even the field conversations are lyrical. When they spot a herd of bharals along a crest, one says, “So beautiful. Full-on punctuation. It’s a line of writing, look.” 

Wildlife photographer Vincent Munier (left) and novelist Sylvain Tesson

They also come quite close – perhaps too close – to a mama bear and her two cubs. The haunting soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis heightens the tension in a scene where Munier and Tesson try to photograph a herd of yaks, but are afraid to get too close as it’s mating season and a male could charge – or the whole herd could stampede. 

After selecting a ravine on the Tibetan plateau as the most likely place to catch the leopard in action, they set up cameras. “Magnifique!” “Incroyable!” (Magnificent! Incredible!) they exclaim as they review the footage and see the creature they’ve come so far to find casually walking past the camera.

But they still wait to see if they can see one with their own eyes. When they finally do, the leopard takes our breath away, especially when you see its natural camouflage in action. It’s nearly invisible against the mountains.

While we do see predators, including wolves and wild cats, stalking and eating their prey, although we do not see any animals killed on camera. One scene is shot from a great distance and one is shown in close-up.

And it’s clear that the filmmakers respect the natural world: At the end of the film, a message (translated from French) reads, “This film was shot by a small team with free and wild animals and the concern of not disturbing them. Homage (respect and honor) to animals and to those who dedicate their lives to protecting them.”

It’s a magnificent look at not just the snow leopard, but several other rare animals you’d likely never see unless you spent long weeks braving the cold in Tibet yourself.

Rating: 4 out of 4 paws

“The Velvet Queen” opened in France on December 15 and on December 22 in New York City and in Los Angeles.

The soundtrack, which includes the vocal track “We Are Not Alone” that plays over the credits, is now out.

Read more about Snow Leopards at https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/snow-leopard

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