In the rarefied art world of Los Angeles, agents, critics and artists are in a loop of wily one-upmanship – and nobody is getting anywhere really uplifting. Dan Gilroy’s new Netflix movie Velvet Buzzsaw is set in such a world. Gilroy, who has also written the screenplay, is a sharp vignetter of an elite art world in which a few people are after the same few million bucks. It’s all very amoral and bitingly satirical until the story cascades into an old-school horror flick. Idealism feasts on cravenness, which is immersive until the last bloody turn.
There is sex, deceit and ruthless persuasion, and art inspired enough to be relevant to tireless digital natives (a figurative painting is fresh and “visionary”). There are compact, post-modern architectural marvels. There is enough intrigue about an artist who is dead and his revenge on all the characters of the film.
Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), a suit-and-white-sneaker, bespectacled, sexually-fluid art critic has the power to destroy gallerists and artists. Fans adore him, women fawn over him, and hilariously enough, he lives in a spankingly minimalist and chic house with a swimming pool. How is an art critic swimming with so much money, you wonder, but it doesn’t matter because Morf is a character who evokes disbelief as well as sympathy. He uses words like “ensorcelling” while looking at an artwork, smokes hash oil, and wants to write a piece that “goes beyond opinion”.
Josephine (Zawe Ashton), an ambitious gallery assistant, has access to the works of a dead artist named Ventril Dease, who has had a troubled life and wished his works destroyed after his death. Josephine’s boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) and her rival Gretchen (Toni Colette) want to cash in on the Dease works, which Morf endorses with what seems like arduous critical fervour. They are all embroiled in the chase to find out who Dease was and how they could make Dease the new toast of the art world. Gilroy upends the genre straight into horror more than halfway into the film, and Velvet Buzzsaw becomes a sort of apocalyptic fantasy for artists.
There are some impressive shows of art. The anguished, horrifying faces on Dease’s canvasses are too literal a representation of what an artist untouched by commercial value should be afflicted by: pain and solitude. The artist of colour ditching the craven galleries for an art collective with other men of colour hammers into the narrative like a noble cliche. John Malkovich as an ageing artist in need of inspiration has some emotional bite.
But the scene-stealer is an installation piece called Sphere, a giant metallic orb with holes that invite the viewer’s hands in to explore what is within. Against interpretation, Dease’s “spirit” gets in there. Imagine all you can what that trapped spirit does to Gretchen’s bedecked hand leisurely exploring one of the holes after she has made a million-dollar deal. Some of the bloody incarcerations are absurd and scary.
Velvet Buzzsaw is as sexy as the title. It is hilarious in parts and contrived when the descent to vendetta starts unfolding. The revenge of the oil painting on the swimmingly rich art critic? Gilroy and his actors fleshes out the premise most gratifyingly.