Now streaming on:
Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s “The Velvet Queen,” opening today in New York and Los Angeles, is a calming, meditative experience. You can feel the chill in the air when you’re watching it, and it often achieves a hypnotic tone, thanks in no small part to a gorgeous score from the two geniuses Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who find the perfect compositions for a project that reaches for something greater than a typical nature documentary. “The Velvet Queen” is at its strongest when it allows for silence on this gorgeous landscape, using only its mesmerizing score to elevate the imagery into something poetic about the beauty of mother nature. But while the visuals and music are stunning, the two subjects of the film (and its co-director) have a habit of over-explaining what they’re doing not just in practical terms but remarkably self-serious philosophical ones as well. Other than a comment here or there about the hunt that these two men find themselves on, I could have discarded literally every soundbite in “The Velvet Queen,” and would have preferred to just get lost in this frigid corner of the world.
“The Velvet Queen” unfolds in a mountainous, seemingly inhospitable part of the world, on the peaks of Tibet. Here, photographer (and co-director) Munier and his pal Sylvain Tesson (a famous author who wrote a successful book about the events of this film titled The Art of Patience – Seeking the Snow Leopard) spend their days seeking wildlife that’s often unseen by human eye. Munier hunts animals in this part of the world but only to shoot them with a camera, never a gun. He has a deep, almost religious view of the natural world, and it’s made him a household name in his field, leading to the award for BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year three years in a row.
Munier narrates this journey through soundbites and conversation with Tesson. The joy he expresses over finding recent bear feces is downright inspiring. Especially as the world seems to be collapsing again, it’s comforting to see someone so thrilled by something that’s not man-made. His buddy Tesson even points out that what he’s doing—hunting wild animals—is about as old the human species itself. As they spot falcons on a cliff face that practically camouflage themselves into it or antelopes fleeing an as-yet-unseen predator, Munier and Tesson display not only a deep intelligence but respect for what they’re seeing.
Sadly, Munier and Amiguet don’t trust their audience quite enough. I wished for an almost Werner Herzog approach to the material here that didn’t spell out the philosophy or importance of mother nature as much as “The Velvet Queen” feels comfortable doing. And yet it’s never quite self-serious enough to defeat what the film does well. Every time I felt like “The Velvet Queen” was spinning its wheels, the team would stumble onto some new vista of shot of an animal living in its own habitat. There’s a calming serenity to the best of “The Velvet Queen,” especially as the team gets closer to their end goal, a shot of a rare snow leopard. The idea that we should step out of our technology-driven worlds to be reminded of the existence of creatures of such beauty, majesty, and intelligence feels valuable at the end of 2021. Maybe we should all connect with mother nature more than we have been lately. I’m bringing the music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis with me.
In limited theatrical release today. National expansion to follow.