A svelte, slinky figure in spotted silvery blond, the snow leopard is one of the great haughty glamazons of the animal kingdom — a status suitably acknowledged in the English-language title of “The Velvet Queen,” French docmaker Marie Amiguet’s lovely, unexpected screen ode to the little-seen feline. (The French original title is the more prosaic). “La panthère des neiges.”) Yet if the title implies the naturalist’s equivalent of diva worship, the film’s approach surprises us, fixating less on the furry dazzle of the snow leopard in her natural Tibetan habitat than on the very act of looking at nature in the first place. Joining two compatriots — leading wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and adventurer Sylvain Tesson — on an arduous trek to catch sight of the beast, the doc thoughtfully ponders the conflicted nature of a one-way relationship between watcher and watched.
More art-house than Animal Planet, complete with a sparsely atmospheric score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this upcoming Oscilloscope release (which appropriately premiered in Cannes’ new eco-conscious Cinema for the Climate program) should find a dedicated audience without becoming a “My Octopus Teacher”-level phenomenon. One suspects its aloof subject won’t mind. Man, after all, is the primary reason the queen in question has become so elusive, with poaching and environmental destruction having slashed Asia’s snow leopard population to grimly endangered levels. Man has given her a mythic status due to this rarity. “The Velvet Queen”She wonders tacitly about the cat’s responsibilities to her human admirers.
It’s that wry, self-effacing awareness that lends an endearingly quixotic air to Munier and Tesson’s quest, and that separates the film from more plainly spectacle-driven nature documentaries of its ilk. For one thing, Amiguet — a first-time director who previously shot the comparably themed, wolf-oriented 2016 documentary “La vallée des loups” — has little interest in the iridescent, awe-driven aesthetic gloss so popular in its genre. There’s no magic-hour varnish applied to the forbiddingly rugged, taupe-hued vistas of the Tibetan Highlands, the considerable beauty of which nonetheless doesn’t demand to be framed.
Rather, it’s a seemingly barren landscape that requires patience from the onlooker, its manifold forms of life revealing themselves slowly and subtly, often in canny camouflage. Munier, Tesson, and their frustrating search for the snow leopard lead to many fascinating discoveries. “Waiting was a prayer,”Munier comments in an often eccentrically abstract voiceover that was co-scripted by the director. “If nothing came, we just hadn’t looked at it properly.”
As the monarch keeps us waiting, the audience also learns to look at the scene in the same manner. An extended look at a Tiberan antelope, or a more fleeting one at the lithe, eternally scowling Tibetan fox, is its own reward; even a tiny, orange-breasted lark becomes regal under the filmmakers’ collective gaze, which gradually drinks in an entire ecosystem. Humanity doesn’t get entirely short shrift either, as Munier and Tesson’s dealings with the region’s locals — adults and children alike, who don’t exoticize their native wildlife in the same way — account for some of the film’s wittiest material.
But what about the leopard, you ask? Our explorers accept the possibility that it might have evaded us after several close calls and cold trails. “Not everything was created for the human eye,”Munier narrates. This would be a great takeaway from the exercise. “The Velvet Queen” isn’t so austere or perverse as to deny us some closure, and with a first glimpse of a tail coyly curling out from behind a rock formation, the big cat is eventually granted a true screen siren’s entrance. She’s magnificent, of course, but by this time is of a piece with her strange, seductive environment. Amiguet’s elegant, unusual documentary shifts the role of the game-spotter from that of non-violent hunter — in pursuit of one prized target — to passive but duly wide-eyed observer, accepting but also appreciating the limits of our access.