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(Vincent Munier and Marie Amiguet‘s The Velvet Queen made it’s debut at Cannes before arriving in theaters in December. Chris Reed has this movie review of The Velvet Queen. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

If you like your nature and wildlife captured in images of exquisite beauty, have I got a film for you. The Velvet Queen (“La panthère des neiges” in the original French) struts her magnificent stuff across the plains and mountains of Tibet, her stride alternatingly brisk and meandering. Time has little meaning in the steppe, and humans who visit must recalibrate expectations. We spend 90 minutes in the company of two such observers, Vincent Munier (co-director of this documentary with Marie Amiguet) and Sylvain Tesson — the former a photographer, the latter a writer — as they pick their path over majestic terrain in search of the titular (in French), elusive animal: the snow leopard. Along the way, the two Frenchmen encounter additional fauna just as fascinating and we viewers are the lucky beneficiaries of their recorded journey.

It’s 2018 and our protagonists have come prepared for climbs, descents and camping in cold weather. Their steaming breath — as well as that of the deer, yaks, wolves, foxes, and other creatures around — plumes across the landscape in sparkling clouds that catch the light at just the right angle. Narrating the adventure is Tesson, whose voiceover may sometimes be a little too expositional yet nevertheless manages to express his feelings about what nature represents and how the modern world’s distance from it is a devastating tragedy. He also meditates on what it means to accept that events will not happen on a schedule. Best to come prepared with a rich inner life.

When not sitting for hours behind massive telephoto lenses, Munier and Tesson share the occasional joke, eat their reheated provisions, discuss their never-ending awe at every new view, and interact with the locals, including a very lively group of kids who join them one day, on a lark, high up a peak, accompanied by their mastiff. The directors are not here for ethnography, however, and the inclusion of this footage is a respectful nod to the hosts who make their long stay possible. Plus, the youngsters are charming and lively.

No, what we really want is the leopard! But wouldn’t you know it? She does her best to avoid contact with homo sapiens. Not so a trio of bears; if anything, when they show up, it’s best to get out of their way, no matter how photogenic they seem. Still, with the help of a remote video camera and then, later, some excellent fortune, Munier and Tesson hit the jackpot, the details of which shall not be spilled here. Despite that Hollywood ending, I am here to tell you that the cutest predator we encounter is a Pallas’s cat. Beware, though, for its adorable appearance belies a fierce demeanor and sharp claws.

Beyond the raw splendor of the movie’s glorious compositions, there lies a melancholy that Tesson tries his best to express. We are witnesses to a mostly lost world, the traces of which may still exist here, but for how long? Once, snow leopards were not so rare. Today, their numbers decrease every year through poaching and destruction of habitat. Perhaps in the future they will only exist in photographs and books or on screen. Sad as that may be, the presence of the one here is inspiring. May the queen reign supreme for as long as she can.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

Vincent Munier, Marie Amiguet; The Velvet Queen documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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