About camouflage and control in The Velvet Queen

In the first few minutes of The velvet queen, the new documentary by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier set in the Tibetan highlands, an extremely long shot of a distant summit captures a pack of wolves descending on a herd of yaks. Outnumbered and oversized, six wolves nonetheless catch a calf, encircling it as the bovine scatters and an aberrant, presumably the mother, observes a few feet away. It’s a brutal and brutally beautiful scene, set to a haunting score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave.

It’s also a scene depicting an invasion that mirrors what mainstream wildlife films tend to do best: to impose the human eye on a natural landscape and apprehend something precious. Unlike the wolf, which is driven to kill out of the need to survive, our drive to hunt and capture the exotic serves more to reinforce a speciesist (and specious) status. “As for me, I am tormented by an eternal itch of distant things”, declares the chatty narrator of Moby dick, perhaps the seminal Western contribution to the canon of man against nature. “I like to navigate the forbidden seas and land on the barbarian coasts. In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, chasing – and conquering – the “great white whale” serves as a metonym for the great, though often greatly depraved, human experience in the broad sense: we define ourselves through what we tear off and subjugate. To roam foreign lands, to claim and taxonomize the natural world – these are, we have learned, our human rights.

A Pallas cat in The velvet queen

It’s no surprise that these attitudes have shaped the genre of nature documentaries, especially those that explore distinctly unknown lands or hostile terrain. Typically, a supernaturally robust man braves nature to find transcendent beauty within. at Luc Jacquet The penguins walk (2005) or Jacques Perrin Winged migration (2001) are two relatively recent and deeply profitable examples. “The phenomenon of looking at animals in visual culture is based on 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 made vulnerable, free to be captured, in whatever way the human viewer chooses … [s]Such a perspective confuses an ecologically ethical ideology, in which all members of an ecosystem are interdependent and no species is inherently privileged over another.

It is therefore a relief that Amiguet consciously upsets this asymmetry in his portrait of Vincent Munier’s quest to contemplate the Tibetan snow leopard. It might be more accurate, in fact, to describe his film as a portrait of the famous wildlife photographer repeatedly trying and failing to locate the leopard, writer Sylvain Tesson in tow to offer philosophical insights throughout. Rather than celebrating the intrepid man capturing and controlling the magic of “nature”, the director’s camera focuses more on the way nature looks. we, his creatures concealed by camouflage to evade our imperious gaze. Blow after blow, an animal – or the beast, as nicknamed by Munier and Tesson – blends in so spectacularly with its surroundings that the spotting of its outline is reminiscent of the challenge of a 1990s “Magic Eyes” poster. As we track down the elusive snow leopard, we see bharals, Pallas cats, Tibetan foxes, antelopes, rabbits and saker falcons, learning to enjoy these natural splendors as they approach us. , rather than actively seeking them out.

A saker falcon and a snow leopard The velvet queen

“[E]Even when there is no explicit attempt to deceive, “Malamud writes of typical nature documentaries,” they can mislead or mislead viewers by making animals appear too accessible, too easily present, which distorts the reality that most animals live far from us, hidden from us. . ” On the other hand, The velvet queen points out that the animal kingdom is almost always out of reach. The power to camouflage both keeps a creature away from our gaze and amplifies its eventual visual appeal; we have to wait and work to see one on the screen. “I am known to photograph [the leopard] without even realizing it, ”Munier shares with Tesson during one of their Bromantic treks. “I spot him early in the morning, he disappears in a sort of rocky circus… two, three months later, looking at my images on a computer screen, I conjure up the hawk, and I have a shock. Along the outline of the rock, behind it, the leopard’s head. He was looking at me. And here, we also see the snap of the bird, amazed to suddenly spot the cat’s green-gold eyes in the upper left corner.

Much of the film is punctuated by Shard’s bespectacled exhilarations – some more lyrical (and hilarious) than others. “Prehistory cried”, he attests with emotion, “and each tear was a yak”. Pallas’ cat “appears on a rocky peak with its shaggy head, syringe-like canines and yellow eyes, grinding its fluffy plush with a demonic glow.” At other times Shard’s storytelling feels heavier, such as halfway through the film he says, “We had to come to terms with the depressing idea that the earth stinks of humans.” But based on how Munier sees himself as part, rather than outside, of nature, it seems more realistic, and certainly less depressing, to see how humans might coexist with nature rather than looking at it. to go past.

A wild yak in The velvet queen

To this end, the smug survivalism that accompanies many nature documentaries is, thankfully, rare. Munier and Shard endure sub-zero temperatures, but are clearly dressed in enough cold weather gear and regularly return to their heated shelter to sleep and ingest a plethora of processed carbohydrates. When greeted by a pair of friendly Tibetan children who recognize Munier from afar, he is treated neither as a white male savior nor as a stoic sage; kids in quilted jackets are as comfortable sweeping the naturalist’s smartphone screen as they are weathering the elements. Humility anchors both his approach and that of Amiguet of the expedition. “I’ve never seen this before, it’s super rare,” Munier mutters incredulously as after so many unsuccessful attempts, they finally stumble upon the “velvet queen” feasting on an animal carcass, her glistening fuchsia innards are the splashiest thing onscreen in the full movie. “It doesn’t look … it doesn’t look bothered at all to us.”

Note the irony of this antanaclastic “look”: the leopard Is it that see; she actively monitors, and yet she ultimately deems her bearded seekers to be quite unimportant. “It makes one death a hundred yards from the cave we choose to sleep in. It’s a gift, a gift out of nowhere,” Munier gushes from a calm distance, tears crystallizing between his eyelashes. Here, the climax of the film, the leopard slowly lowers its snowy, aged body onto the rocky ground, its eyes fixed on the lens, the fur blending into the snowy background to protect it from our sight. And even we are most certainly in her eyes, and seeing her see us – in particular, her carefree coldness in the wake of our wonder – she becomes all the more sublime.

A Tibetan fox in The velvet queen

In this way, The velvet queen implores us not to seek the secret splendors of nature, not to venture to conquer and claim, but rather to simply (or not so simply) wait for nature, royal and indifferent, to come and find us. “I had learned that patience is a supreme virtue,” Tesson recalls at the end of the film. “The most elegant and the most neglected. It helped you love the world.

At the dawn of a new year and in the midst of a resurgent virus, at a time when loving the world can seem more difficult than ever, The velvet queen weaves its way through winter snow, a space that can be easily mistaken for emptiness. Slowly and willingly ceding control, along with the prospect of one day having it, might be the maximum we can aim for these days. As Tesson says in the final scene, “Worship what is in front of you. Hope for nothing. Enjoy what arises. Have faith in poetry. Be happy with the world. Fight to keep it.

The velvet queen, directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, is currently in some theaters.

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