As I’ve mentioned before, winter here in Michigan is longer than I would like. However, as I struggle to stay warm inside my drafty home, the phrase “if you can’t beat it, join it” often comes to mind. Here are two recently-viewed French films that have helped me appreciate the cold this year.
The Velvet Queen
Last week, as my fellow citizens braced themselves for a winter storm that was descending upon SE Michigan, I ventured out to see The Velvet Queen. This French documentary follows the 2018 journey of wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson as they cross the highlands of Tibet in search of the elusive snow leopard. The last specimens of this dying species live in the Changtang nature reserve, which at roughly 5,000 meters above sea level is the highest and one of the most remote wildernesses in the world.
Having been to the region previously, Munier leads the trip. He’s brought Tesson along to lend his brilliant narration to the journey. The quest requires rugged hardiness and extreme patience as hours upon hours are spent quietly watching and waiting. Not visible, but along for the ride, is co-director Marie Amiguet who films Munier and Tesson as they peer through camera lenses and binoculars, surrounded by snow-swept slopes.
One assumes that they will eventually achieve their goal but the viewer quickly realizes that even if they fail to spot a snow leopard, the trip to the theater has been well worth it. Munier and Amiguet’s combined cinematography is breathtaking. The vistas of Tibet are part of the reward but so are the images, both still shots and video, of other local species, including wild yaks, Tibetan foxes, bears, the Saker falcon, and the Pallas’s cat whose double identity as a cuddle toy and vicious killer makes me doubt the trustworthiness of my housecats.
Tesson is a bestselling author in France who has written about several previous treks, including a journey crossing the steppes of central Asia from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan on horseback. I’ve never read any of his books but the snippets of text that he lends to this film often border on poetry. I left the theater wanting to hold onto the stillness and calm that the 90-minute film had instilled in my bones. I appreciated the quiet walk home across a city that was quieter than usual due to pending weather predictions—a gradual reintegration into what Tesson referred to as “the puppet show of humanity”.
Journey to Greenland
Journey to Greenland, currently available on Netflix, unfolds in a more jovial but equally inhospitable landscape. The film’s two central characters, unemployed actors who share the name Thomas, have traveled to Kullorsuaq, one of the most remote villages in Greenland. They’ve arrived near the summer solstice, expecting to spend several weeks visiting Nathan, the father of the shorter Thomas. Nathan has been living in Greenland for 20 years and the relationship between father and son appears simultaneously warm and tenuous. Nathan is eager to share his life with the younger men. They, in turn, seem aimless but accepting as they immerse themselves in the daily lives of the welcoming Inuit residents.
Written and directed by Sébastien Betbeder, this lighthearted drama was shot on location in Kullorsuaq. The ongoing narration from Thomas-the-son, along with spectacular scenes of the polar surroundings by cinematographer Sébastien Godefroy, gives the film the feel of a documentary. The scenario is both fun and informative as Betbeder cleverly juxtaposes the factual and often sobering challenges of Inuit life with the hapless and self-absorbed fiction of his two Parisian main characters.
Throughout their visit, the Thomases are witness to ancient customs, present-day pastimes, and the routine chores that are necessary for survival. The hospitable community is excited to have new faces in town and enthusiastically invites the young men to partake in all activities. Their differing reactions to such overtures range from willingness to reluctance and gradually paint a portrait of each Thomas’ personality.
If you are looking for a dramatic finale or the life-changing transformation of one of the characters, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Journey to Greenland is simply an endearing look at life in a remote part of the globe that few of us will ever see. The native residents of the film live in a world that is perpetually covered in snow. The hardships of such an environment are evident. What’s more, problems like climate change and the effects of social media on young people are exacerbated. Despite the challenges, however, humankind’s ability to overlook adversity and celebrate the good things in life is front and center.
I’ll be keeping that in mind as I shovel my sidewalks later today.
- Goodreads, La Panthère des neige, par Tesson Sylvain