Thursday 31 March 2022

33rd Alliance Française French Film Festival 2022 - Janice Tong's đŸŽ„ 3rd Filmic Postcard LA PANTHÈRE DES NEIGES /THE VELVET QUEEN (Marie Amigue & Vincent Munier, 2021)

The Queen, The Velvet Queen

This is a profound film that brings the wild heartland of nature towards you. Given the time and distance, its approach catches you off guard: the sounds, the sights, the sheer vastness of the landscapes and the incredible poetry of all its animals, the majestic and the whimsical, all come to rest within your beating heart. Here, in the darkened cinema, the film is no longer a documentary, as the observer and the observed becomes one; it enters you as a dream: where you encounter the stoic beauty of a wild yak, its tufted skirt around its legs silhouetted against a pre-dawn sky, standing still, it watches you as you watch Vincent Munier on his belly directly in front of it. The surprising but too elegant-to-be-comical bharal doe’s bunny hops, or the Pallas’ cats synchronic moves, like a mechanised version of its feline self. Munier’s meditation on nature is a lesson in waiting. As he teaches us the art of the blind, we learn the world. His eye is trained on beauty and wonderment, and not on the devastation he must surely have also observed. This self-taught artistic eye (“I’m not a photojournalist” he says), is perhaps his greatest gift to us; to really see a world in its nascent fragility, the dawn of a landscape without humans. We see in his youthful but lined features a patient teacher; who is determined but gentle in reminding us of the need to preserve what little left we have of the wild and this film (as do his photographs) speaks to the tangible balance of lives that dwell within its diminishing landscape.

Vincent Munier, Sylvain Tesson


Sylvain Tesson, nature writer, adventurer, poet from the Tesson family (father, Phillippe, an active audio-visual journalist who was once the editor-in-chief of Combat in the 60s and 70s amongst other newspaper publications; sisters StĂ©phanie is a director and playwright and DaphnĂ©, a journalist). Munier’s dialogue with Tesson, by way of their whispered conversations, but also their contemplation and observation, their pursuit, solitude and waiting calm; and most of all, their collective eye – captured so unobtrusively by Marie Amiguet – has shaped this film into an ode, or perhaps, an epic poem (50 versions of this film was made) in balanced search of the seen and the unseen. Tesson’s voiceover guides our own inner voice and colours our reading of the film with a philosophical frame, “Not everything in this world is meant for the eyes of humans,” Tesson says in the film. No, not everything – across a snow-covered slant of peaks and the prairies shimmering with a low winter sun, we know this is, in fact, a God’s eye view; and we are privileged to sit in this seat for a short while. 


There is so much to see – Tesson admits that as an adventurer, he “chased the horizon” – that we miss as we hurtle ourselves across the plains of existence, of toil and labour; or in our pursuit of the new and the better, all leaves us breathless for more of the same excess. This film asks us to pause, if but for a moment. And in this moment, I contemplate what might be lost, (and what we are continually losing) perhaps forever – and I would not want this world to fade...with its haunting and incomprehensible beauty. This world I imply is an ‘other’ world. A world without humans. Because, quite very simply, “the world reeks of us” – we are everywhere. 

Wild yak at dawn


The animals observe us from their distance; across time too; as though, in Tesson’s words, the wild yaks are “ancient totems, suspended in time. Pre-history wept, and each tear became a yak”. 


The empty promise of the wait, of the snowy queen, who may or may not present herself. The film tells its story well, because you would not know unless you read the press release that the snow leopard that chose to rendezvous with Sylvain was an ancient beast. Battered across the left muzzle and around its jaw; its fur less regal than the graceful camouflaged beast in the photographic stills (or perhaps they are filmic, but regardless, the mythical creature is captured in stillness within those frames). Sylvain’s panthĂšre speaks to us of its history and its trials within this landscape; and also of survival in a harsh land (regularly we see temperatures recorded at -25°C) and thus, its fragility; and finally its solitary existence.

Pallas cat


It was an ill-felt wake up when I headed out to the streets after the film; the loudness of the traffic and people’s voices, shuffling, pointing, consuming, everything felt amplified and greatly disturbed my meditation. I wanted little else than to look at a bird or a flower. 


This is as much Vincent Munier’s film as it is Marie Amiguet’s or Sylvain Tesson’s; also LĂ©o-Pol Jacquot’s too, who has been working with Munier for eight years (but always in front of computers). This nimble team of four adapted to their surroundings; spending two separate three week trips into the Tibetan wilderness. At one stage, I did become alarmed at Munier’s delight (though he didn’t think he was ‘animal’ enough), when he discovered the cave where they are about to take shelter for the night, was in fact a well-frequented den for bears, wolves and leopards. The film also showed a lovely encounter with the nomadic Tibetan family who welcomed the team to stay with them from time to time during the shoot, and thus breaking harsh Chinese laws that have been set against Tibetans– Munier himself had been subject to violent police arrests and treatments; but this film does not make a political statement. It is however, interesting to note that this film has a longer pre-history than that deemed by this shoot; Munier had been documenting the Tibetan wilderness since 2011; so the landscape would be at once familiar but also different with each visit, (this is how Munier likes to work – on a single subject, over a long period of time) and the audience gets the benefit of his 11 year-long sojourn and the materials he has collected in this time – such as exquisite but haunting the opening scene of the black and the white.  That was from an earlier trip and filmed only on an iPhone and a telescope. But I digress, Munier’s desire is to only be open to what approaches, to be present within the experiences that unfold; his communion is with the elegiac – where time and its violent grip on us disappears, and there, alone on the plain, there is only one moment that stretches out infinitely. 

Click to enlarge and spot the panther, The Velvet Queen


The small bird with orange plumage on its belly at the end of the film is a startling footnote – that a bird of such diminutive size has a majesty of its own; the signature of which is drawn, I believe by a White-capped Redstart – to read its marking (or tracks), its silhouette and then to identify it, is perhaps the first language of humans. And so, we realise, nature has always taught us, if only we would wait, watch, smell and listen. 


The Alliance Française French Film Festival is currently showing in SydneyMelbourneCanberra and Perth from now to the 6th April across a number of theatres. Hobart from 9th to 20th March, Brisbane from 16th March to 13th April, and a little later in Byron Bay, 30th March to 13th April, Victor Harbour 4th to 11th April and Adelaide from 24th March to 26th April.

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