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The Velvet Queen

"you may well love it. I did."

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- French snow leopard hunt that's not your average 'nature doc' - 

You can tell a lot about a country from the nature documentaries it produces.

The Americans still have the unforgivable habit of giving wild animals names and then imposing some half-baked nuclear family values on them in the narration. 

While the British wheel Sir David from the cryogenic vault and ask him to once again be the most perfect man on the planet, as he describes one species disembowelling another as though it were the most beautiful thing imaginable, and he was just seeing it for the very first time. And down here in Aotearoa, we, and our neighbours in the West Island try to keep the talking to a minimum and mostly let the pictures do the work, with an occasional expert to fill in the gaps and remind us how wonderful it all is.

But the French are different. Raised on cheese and philosophy, the French look at nature and then they talk about the realisations and emotions it has stirred in them. Or, in the case of Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson – the photographer and the writer who are the (human) stars of The Velvet Queen – they talk about a cat they have yet to glimpse.

The Velvet Queen of the title is a snow leopard. These beautiful big cats are vanishingly rare, and they live almost exclusively in the Himalayan mountains and the neighbouring ranges in Afghanistan and western China. Snow Leopards are almost never seen below 3500 metres and only in areas in which human populations are sparse or non-existent. Small wonder really that these astonishing beasties have near mythical status among photographers and explorers. To even see one is a rare privilege.

Munier is a renowned photographer and Tesson is an acclaimed travel writer and biographer. Tesson's adventures have been adapted into feature films and his books are routinely best-sellers. The Velvet Queen sees these two friends, with cinematographer and director Marie Amiguet, climbing high above the Tibetan plains and then hunkering down in a “blind” – a hidden lair, near a promising trail – waiting and hoping that a snow leopard will grace them with its presence.

In the blind – and on the climb to it – Munier and Tesson talk about what they have seen. And in Tesson's case especially, wax spiritual and cry holy tears at the sheer magnificence of it all. Those of you who like your nature docos of the more prosaic variety should be warned, these men have a lot on their mind and no shortage of superlatives to express it.

And yet, with blatant cultural chauvinism, I really didn't mind. If it had been an American, or even a New Zealander providing that voice-over, I might not have enjoyed The Velvet Queen. But, I am a sucker for a French voice and Tesson does have a quite relentlessly poetic way with the language.

In sparse counterpoint to the narration, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave contribute a soundscape that seemed to me to have exactly the other-worldly and grittily organic quality that this project demands.

This is not your average “nature doc'' at all. The Velvet Queen is a rambling, dream-like, occasionally quite hallucinatory film. On a big screen, with the sound up loud, you may well love it. I did.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

The Velvet Queen is now playing at Light House Cinema! 
(In French with English subtitles)

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