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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
There is a distinct difference between nature documentaries made in France and those from the rest of the world. The BBC template usually takes man out of the frame, pretending that the animals and places being photographed exist in some perfect Eden where man has not arrived to commit original sin. That has been the model for a very long time because the BBC is selling what the viewer wants – an exotic form of silence that comes from being out there where men do not go. A French nature documentary would typically commit the opposite sin: they always have man in the frame or in the ears, usually in the form of a soppy narration that bangs on with typically French existential gravity. The Velvet Queen is right on point in that style, but the images save it. The camerawork is truly epic.
Vincent Munier cut his teeth on wildlife still photography. He grew up in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, exploring nature with his father. He has made films all over the world. Here, he goes to the high plains of Tibet in search of the snow leopard. He brings along Sylvain Tesson, who will write a book about the expedition called The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet. The very title tells you he is going to overthink it. Up at 5500m, the temperature here ranges between -9 and -30 degrees Celsius. The landscape is truly lunar. Munier is as happy as he could be. Tesson admits he has not yet learned the art of patience.
Munier engages with his location like a happy kid. He is an expert at waiting, keeping out of sight, choosing the best vantage point. We meet all the gang from up here – yak and antelope, rabbit and eagle, fox, bear, and wolf – just no “panthères des neiges”, as the French call snow leopards. Making us wait till the end is a clever idea. When we do see one, it brings tears to Munier’s eyes and quite possibly the viewers. The leopard sits and gazes straight into the camera, with a directness that seems to ask: why are you here? Can you not leave me alone?