In the first few minutes of The Velvet Queen, Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s new documentary set in the Tibetan highlands, an extreme long-shot from a distant peak captures a pack of wolves descending on a herd of yaks. Outnumbered and outsized, six wolves nonetheless snag a little one, circling it as the bovine disperse and an outlier, presumably the mother, observes from a few yards away. It is a brutal, and brutally beautiful, scene, set to a haunting score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave.
It is also a scene portraying invasion that mirrors what traditional wildlife films tend to do best: impose the human eye upon a natural landscape and apprehend something valuable. Unlike the wolf, who is driven to kill out of the need to survive, our drive to hunt and seize the exotic serves rather to buttress a speciesist (and specious) status. “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” declares the garrulous narrator of Moby Dick, perhaps the seminal Western contribution to the man versus nature canon. “I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, pursuing — and conquering — the “great white whale” serves as metonym for the grand, if often grandly depraved, human experience writ large: we define ourselves through what we snatch and subjugate. To roam about foreign territories, to claim and taxonomize the natural world — these, we have learned, are our human rights.
No surprise that these attitudes have shaped the nature documentary film genre — especially those exploring markedly unknown lands or hostile terrain. Typically, some preternaturally rugged man braves the wild to discover some transcendent beauty within. Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins (2005) or Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration (2001) are two relatively recent, profoundly profitable examples. “The phenomenon of looking at animals in visual culture is predicated upon the assumption that the viewer is human and the object is animal,” writes Randy Malamud in his essay “Animals on Film: The Ethics of the Human Gaze.” “The animal is rendered vulnerable, free for the taking, in whatever way the human viewer chooses … [s]uch a perspective confounds an ecologically ethical ideology, in which all members of an ecosystem are interdependent and no single species is inherently privileged above any other.”
It is some relief, then, that Amiguet consciously upends this asymmetry in her portrait of Vincent Munier’s quest to behold the Tibetan snow leopard. It might be more accurate, in fact, to describe her film as a portrait of the acclaimed wildlife photographer repeatedly trying and failing to locate the leopard, writer Sylvain Tesson in tow to offer philosophical insights throughout. Rather than celebrate intrepid man capturing, and controlling, the magic of “nature,” the director’s camera focuses more on how nature watches us, its creatures concealed via camouflage to dodge our imperious gaze. Shot after shot, an animal — or la bête, as dubbed by Munier and Tesson — blends in so spectacularly with its surroundings that spotting its outline recalls the challenge of a 1990s “Magic Eye” poster. In tracking the elusive snow leopard, we witness bharals, Pallas’s cats, Tibetan foxes, antelopes, rabbits, and saker falcons, learning to enjoy these natural splendors as they approach us, rather than actively seek them out.
“[E]ven when there’s no explicit attempt to deceive,” Malamud writes of typical nature docs, “they may mislead or miseducate viewers by making animals seem too accessible, too easily present, which distorts the reality that most animals live away from us, hidden from us.” By contrast, The Velvet Queen foregrounds how the animal kingdom is almost always out of reach. The power to camouflage at once keeps a creature away from our gaze and amplifies its eventual visual appeal; we must wait, and work, to see one onscreen. “I’ve been known to photograph [the leopard] without even realizing,” Munier shares with Tesson during one of their bro-mantic treks. “I spot it early in the morning, it disappears into a sort of rocky corrie … two, three months later, looking through my images on a computer screen, I bring up the falcon, and I get a shock. Along the contour of the rock, behind it, the leopard’s head. It was watching me.” And here, we too see the shot of the bird, stunned to suddenly spot the green-gold eyes of the cat in the upper left corner.
Much of the film is punctuated by Tesson’s bespectacled exaltations — some more lyrical (and hilarious) than others. “Prehistory cried,” he attests soulfully, “and every tear was a yak.” The Pallas’s cat “pops up on a rocky spike with its hirsute head, syringe-canines, and yellow eyes, rectifying with a demonic glint its plushy cuddliness.” At other times Tesson’s narration feels more heavy-handed, as when midway through the film he avers, “We had to accept the depressing idea the earth reeks of humans.” But based on how Munier experiences himself as part, rather than outside, of nature, it seems more realistic, and certainly less depressing, to see how humans might coexist with the wild rather than seek to overtake it.
To that end, the smug survivalism that accompanies many a nature documentary is, thankfully, in short supply. Munier and Tesson endure subzero temperatures, but are clearly clad in sufficient cold weather gear, and regularly head back to their heated shelter to sleep and ingest a bevy of processed carbs. When greeted by a pair of friendly Tibetan children who recognize Munier from afar, he is treated as neither white male savior nor stoic sage; the puffer-jacketed kiddos are as at home swiping the naturalist’s smartphone screen as they are weathering the elements. Humility anchors both his and Amiguet’s approach to the expedition. “I’ve never seen this before, it’s super rare,” whispers Munier incredulously as, after so many fruitless tries, they at last come upon the “velvet queen” feasting on an animal carcass, its glistening fuchsia innards the splashiest thing onscreen the entire film. “It doesn’t look … it doesn’t look at all bothered about us.”
Note the irony of this antanaclastic “look”: the leopard does look; she actively surveils, and yet she ultimately deems her bearded seekers utterly unimportant. “It makes a kill a hundred meters from the cave we pick to sleep in. It’s a gift, a gift out of nowhere,” Munier gushes from a quiet distance, tears crystallizing between his lashes. Here, the climax of the film, the leopard lowers her snow-dusted, age-addled body slowly onto the rocky ground, eyes fixed to the lens, fur fading into the nival background to shield her from our view. And yet we are most surely in her view, and in seeing her seeing us — specifically, her insouciant froideur in the wake of our awe — she becomes all the more sublime.
In this way, The Velvet Queen implores us not to seek out the secret splendors of nature, not to venture out to conquer and claim, but rather to simply (or not-so-simply) wait for nature, regal and indifferent, to come find us. “I’d learned that patience is a supreme virtue,” reflects Tesson at the film’s conclusion. “The most elegant and the most neglected. It helped you love the world.”
At the cusp of a new year and amid a resurgent virus, in a time when loving the world might feel harder than ever, The Velvet Queen carves a path through the winter snow, a space that can be easy to mistake for the void. To softly, willfully cede control, as well as the prospect of ever having it, might be the most we can aim for these days. As Tesson says in the final scene, “Revere what is in front of you. Hope for nothing. Delight in what crops up. Have faith in poetry. Be content with the world. Fight for it to remain.”
The Velvet Queen, directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, is currently in select theaters.