“THE VELVET QUEEN”
Not rated. In French and Tibetan with subtitles. At Landmark Kendall Square.
If you are a fan of wildlife photography in exotic locales, you owe it to yourself to shake off the pandemic blues and see Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s breathtaking “The Velvet Queen.”
The film is a documentary shot high up on the Tibetan plateau, a place so stark, barren, misty and frost-covered that the footage looks like it is black-and-white, although I assure you it is color.
This is a world where blood and raw meat are as shocking to the eyes as a scream because all the living creatures, predators and herbivores, are covered in either fur or feathers and many of them are naturally camouflaged and difficult to detect against the monochrome background, especially the leopard.
Two intrepid Frenchmen, travel buddies, enter this unforgiving environment armed with ski poles, binoculars, telescopes and photographic equipment on a quest to track one of the most elusive creatures on the planet, the snow leopard.
Munier is one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers. He takes his friend, the adventurer and novelist Sylvain Tesson (“In the Forest of Siberia”) with him, and after leaving the meager comfort of their base camp, they spend days and nights in the valleys, passes and mountaintops, searching for their glorious “panthere.”
In the course of their search, they encounter many creatures of the plateau: bharals aka blue sheep, Tibetan wolves, Tibetan foxes, an eagle-owl, long-horned Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan wild yaks that will charge, Himalayan vultures.
We see many of these animals in montages. But we also take long, hard looks, along with Munier and Tesson. The latter offers frequently poetic observations. We are reminded that this is the land of the Zen master and hermit Milarepa. The snow leopard was also the subject of Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 National Book Award winner “The Snow Leopard,” an account of his spiritual journey and quest in the same region.
Yes, subtitles on a background of snow are a bad idea. But deal with it.
This is a world in which one must “scorn pain” and “ignore time” to succeed. We see a smoking river, its surface water stripped off by the frigid mountain air.
Not enough can be said about how much the film’s otherworldly, squalling score by Warren Ellis (“The Proposition”) with Nick Cave (“Peaky Blinders”) contributes to the film’s impact. The music is as starkly beautiful as the imagery.
One can only wonder how tough it was to shoot and live under such conditions, camping under the stars or in caves. Tesson celebrates nature in its rawest form in contrast to the “puppet show” of the human world.
He observes the animals of the plateau as “vessels of suspended time.” Out of the blue, several, hardy, nomadic children appear to greet the strange, but friendly Frenchmen and take them to their yak farm.
When the velvet queen of the title makes her entrance, you will be utterly enthralled. The leopard is a creature of rock, ice and moss with a tail as thick as one of its legs and a “horrible muzzle” covered in the fresh blood of a bharal. In its natural setting, the snow leopard is a god. See it.
(“The Velvet Queen” contains images of a dead, bloody animal.)