Der Schneeleopard / The Velvet Queen

Directors: Marie Amiguet, Vincent Munier (France). Year of Release: 2021

Der Schneeleopard brings together co-director Vincent Munier and photographer/author Sylvain Tesson in their search for, can you guess?, a snow leopard. Snow leapords have been alleged sighted in Tibet, but there have also been rumours that the big cat has become extinct. As they trek through the Tibetan landscape, Munier and Tesson come into contact with, and photograph, a much larger variety of other wildlife, from birds to bears.

During their travels, Munier makes gnomic observations such as “waiting was a prayer. If nothing came, we just hadn’t looked at it properly,” or “prehistory wept, and each tear was a yak.” There are people who find this sort of word salad profound and poetic. And there are those of us for whom it sounds like self-indulgent pretentious nonsense. Even worse, if you watch the film with German subtitles, as I did, where the words seem even more mundane.

The two trackers occasionally deal with humans, including a local family with an obligatory cute kid. But their general world view seems to be more misanthropic. As he tries to find a hiding place where the snow leopard will not smell out their presence, Munier complains that “the Earth reeks of humans”. The pair’s fascination with nature seems to be slightly tied up with an implied belief that civilisation isn’t all it’s made out to be.

Der Schneeleopard has met with almost universal critical acclaim which does not just appreciated the magnificent beauty of the landscapes and fauna on view here. Most critics also seem to be in awe of the procedure – of the contemplative patience that the pair must have to prepare themselves for an encounter with an animal that might just not even exist. They see a sort of zen serenity in the process of finding hideouts from which they can watch nothing happening for hours.

There is an alternative way of looking at all this. Now I’m not once who requires every film I see to have at least a couple of car crashes, and I am highly suspicious of anything that hints of CGI. But if I’m going to spend some time to go to the cinema, it helps if something is happening. Maybe a film that seems to wallow in a lack of excitement in what it is showing is not for me.

Of course the film does not entirely consist of nothingness. Every so often, an animal does peep out unexpectedly. The travellers get excited, and Tesson tries to catch it on his camera. Sometimes he sets up a hidden camera with night vision then retrieves it later to see which animals have been passing by in the night. On one occasion this proves to be highly effective. But, for an audience, it’s all a bit elation by proxy.

I can see why Munier and Tesson are so obviously enjoying themselves so much. The amount of waiting time must significantly increase the amount of excitement when they experience something – anything. And yet their experiences are something physical, something palpable. All the cinema audience see is a film of two men looking at photos which were taken by a camera while they weren’t even there.

Quite often when I write about films I worry that I’m sounding like an old man shouting at clouds. This time round, I’m more worried about the opposite – that I come across as a member of the youtube generation who, whenever all my senses are not being fully assaulted, I look for the fast forward button or turn to the next video. I really hope that this doesn’t sound like me, but I spent the whole of the film wanting to shout “can something start happening, soon?”

I will concede that I’m probably not the target audience here. I am quite keen on wildlife photography, much less so on David Attenborough style documentaries. Ok, I’ve seen the pretty birds, or mountains, or yak, can we now move onto the next pretty picture? I can patiently wait if I absolutely have to, but I’m not signing onto the idea that patience is a virtue.

Maybe one last point on the music. After Nick Cave made a couple of stupid comments about Ukraine and Palestine, there has been a growing number of facebook posts saying that his confused liberal political views prove that he is a terrible musician and song writer. Because the best music always comes from the people who exactly share our political point of view, right?

Cave is and remains a superb musician, as is his violinist Warren Ellis. Their soundtrack is – well I was going to say the perfect complement to what we see on screen, but that might make them sound uneventful and dull. The music is discrete, it does not impose itself on us, but it subtly brings out the best of the pretty pictures on screen. For those who enjoyed the content of the film (and they seem to be in the majority), the musical accompaniment must only make it better.

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