The Velvet Queen: Film Review

A few days ago, I went to one of the best films that I have ever seen, and definitely the most enjoyable nature documentary that I can recall.

I’m not usually a big fan of nature documentaries. The British documentaries that I’ve seen have often been too gruesome, with overmuch dwelling on animals eating other animals; and the American documentaries that I’ve seen have, in contrast, often been overly sentimental.

Above all, if I’m honest, the nature documentaries that I’ve seen have usually been just too boring to hold my attention. OK, that’s me, I know. But many others feel the same.

In contrast, The Velvet Queen, the film that I’m reviewing here, seems to me to have got pretty much everything right. And that’s not just my opinion. Others I know who went and saw it were similarly impressed. And certainly, there have been plenty of positive reviews.

The film follows two Frenchmen, nature photographer and film-maker Vincent Munier and travel/nature writer Sylvain Tesson (the former guiding the latter) in their quest to observe the famously elusive snow leopard (the ‘velvet queen’ of the title). They journey through the beautiful Tibetan highlands which, with its cold bleak beauty, itself is a major character in the film. There are many stunning moments involving a wide range of animals, notably wild yaks, foxes, bears, Pallas’s cats (this is an animal I’d never heard of, but they are certainly beautiful and attention-grabbing), and, of course, the snow leopard itself. And in a few of those moments we become aware that Munier and Tesson (and presumably the film crew) are taking some serious physical risks too; particularly when Munier is photographing a wild yak from (apparently) quite close-up that looks as if it’s thinking about charging him, and when a family of wild bears is approaching Munier and Tesson and are allowed to come quite close before Munier finally agrees with Tesson that it’s time to go. 

We are aware that there must be a decent-sized film crew accompanying them but that is nowhere explicitly acknowledged outside the credits (and the co-directors are shown to be Marie Amiguet and Munier himself).

It was all beautifully shot and recorded. The narration (basically a conversation between the two human characters in the film, plus the internal musings of one of them) was interesting and informative in a very relaxed way. In addition, there was a nice story arc that unfolded in a natural and unhurried way.

The conversation between the two men and Tesson’s musing often takes a philosophical form. As one might expect there’s reference to the beauty of the world that they’re observing, and of the need to save it. But there’s also discussion about the importance of observation, and of the need for patience in waiting for things to unfold, and of the fact that while the humans in the film are observing nature, the creatures around them are quietly observing them.

The watchfulness of the creatures being filmed is a persistent theme. The creatures that feature have to be sensitive to what’s going on around them, of course – it’s a violent world of killing and being killed (or otherwise perishing), after all.

It’s a beautiful world but also a savage one. There are, it should be noted, some scenes of stalking and of killing itself and of the aftermath of killing, but it’s not gratuitous. It’s woven into the story tastefully and it’s in mostly very brief scenes, and I don’t think too many viewers will be upset by it.

The music soundtrack, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, perfectly matches the scenery and the mood of the film.

Documentary films don’t tend to have long runs. So, if you get the chance before it stops screening at a theatre near you, I’d urge you to get along and see it. It would be better on the big screen than on a smaller one. But it would still, I’m sure, be a good film to watch on a reasonable-sized screen at home. If you do see it on a screen at home, I suggest you make sure you can see it right through in its entirety, without interruptions or distractions.

This is the sort of experience that, over the span of an hour and a half, can leave a viewer totally absorbed. It certainly had that effect on me. And it left me feeling I’d seen something very special…

For the official trailer of the film, which showcases it well, see:

And for what another reviewer thought, see:

(Image: Film flyer from Penthouse cinema, Wellington (own copy))

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