June Butler explores the heart of the Tibetan highlands.
Beautifully shot with an expert eye for cinematic impact, The Velvet Queen is one of the most stunning pieces of film you will ever see. Pitted inhospitable landscapes hold the keys to an abundance of living creatures who blend seamlessly into the scabrous backdrops. Beastly sentinels observe in watchful silence as two men make their way across the peaks and valleys of the Tibetan mountains in the search for that most elusive of creatures, the Snow Leopard.
Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson are explorers and friends who embark on a journey – hiking across perilous paths and plateaus and through glacial intersections into unknown territory as they seek to track down and record images of the Snow Leopard. Munier has crossed paths with the graceful animals before but yearns to return and see if he can recapture images that prove the feline still inhabits the Tibetan peaks. Munier’s wonderfully calm demeanour is the perfect counterbalance to Tesson’s chatty and sometimes funny asides. As travelling companions, they are eminently well suited and there is a pervading sense of peaceful travail and symbiosis between the two. Munier plays the pragmatist with seasoned effortlessness – he knows that sometimes encounters with rare animals do not always occur but nonetheless, is still overjoyed and elated to be where he feels truly alive instead of simply existing.
Two local men set up an observation point to monitor Vincent and Sylvain’s progress as they traverse the pass. One of the two drily mentions the fact that he saw several wolves tracking the hikers but is unconcerned. The other mutters unintelligibly stating that he witnessed the same wolves tracking Munier and Tesson on a previous foray but both returned to camp unscathed. The duo continue the vigil with hilarious nonchalance.
Of the many rare and mysterious animals inhabiting the plateau, one that is noted for its fearlessness and hunting prowess is Pallas’s cat. The seemingly innocuous feline with ears set low on a rounded head, belies an intelligent and cunning predator. Unusually Pallas’s cat has rounded rather than vertical pupils and for this feature alone, is unique among small animals in this genus. Munier captures this stunning animal in one of his many ‘blinds’, a set up whereby animals do not realise they are being filmed.
Endangered species populate the mountains – including Tibetan Antelopes, Tibetan Yaks (upon whom the locals depend heavily for food and clothing), Bharals (Himalayan Blue Sheep), Kiang (Tibetan wild ass), and the holy grail for Munier and Tesson, the Snow Leopard. Both men are relatively sanguine about the possibility of encountering a Snow Leopard. Munier muses that whether he sees one or not, is less important than becoming immersed in the marvels of the mountains – a female bear and her cubs stare menacingly at Munier and Tesson. Wisely, they beat a hasty retreat. A Yak huffs and puffs – making several false charges towards the two men. Munier says that the mating season makes the animals far more aggressive than normal. They both realise that all their clumsy efforts in trying to track wild animals, has been turned on its head as Munier and Tesson become aware that they are being watched and assessed by the very creatures they want to photograph.
Wondrous and utterly sublime, The Velvet Queen is a visual ode to perfection – a mesmerising piece of cinema that exudes utter childlike joy and sets the gold standard for those that would follow in its footsteps.
The Velvet Queen is in cinemas from 8th May 2022.