What could have infuriated Dan Gilroy so much that he chose to create the ludicrous, razor-edged satire that is Velvet Buzzsaw?
Did he read a bad review of his last film, Nightcrawler? Did he worry his work was being undervalued compared with the Hollywood fodder from Marvel and Disney? Or was it a more general sense of angst about the relationship between art and commerce?
You know what? Never mind.
Any attempt to parse meaning here would likely get another of the Netflix film’s sycophantic art lovers swallowed up by some demonic painting or other, so let’s not fall into that trap.
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Velvet Buzzsaw, at its core, is a highly entertaining genre mash-up: a B-movie concept with an A-list cast, complete with scenery-munching performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Toni Collette, and plenty of absurd scares.
The film sees Jake Gyllenhaal’s pompous critic Morf Vandewalt and his equally deplorable art world friends – a dogged gallery owner (Russo), a lowly assistant with grand aspirations (Zawe Ashton), and a museum employee (Collette) – plagued by a mysterious entity after they profit from a series of creepy paintings they discovered in a dead man’s apartment.
The majority of the first third is spent sending up the LA art world, and it’s where Gilroy seems most at home. Here, the satire is sharp and deeply satisfying.
Gyllenhaal slinks through a gallery in Miami, bitchily critiquing everything from artists – “sobriety hasn’t been good for him” – to a terrifyingly life-like robot: “It’s an iteration. No originality, no courage.”
The actor, in his second collaboration with Gilroy after the brilliant Nightcrawler, deserves plenty of credit for so wholly embracing this monstrous character. Morf is pretentious beyond belief, morally bankrupt – but it’s hard not to have a tiny bit of sympathy for him as his world begins to collapse.
When the scares kicks in, as paintings come to life and murder people, the themes that Gilroy is getting at – among other things, that you probably shouldn’t separate the art from the artist, particularly if they are a murderous loon – rise to the surface. But they feel secondary to the good, gory fun.
On more than one occasion, people mistake real life for art. It’s a typical trope from critics of modern art, that value and meaning are placed upon objects which deserve neither.
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There’s a vivid, deadpan scene involving a gallery’s visitors admiring a dismembered body splayed next to one of the central works, not realising that the dead person isn’t actually part of the exhibition.
Elsewhere, an agent, keen to sign visionary and recovering addict Piers (played by John Malkovich), mistakes a bag of rubbish on the artist’s floor for his latest piece.
I, for one am no fool: I will be recommending Netflix’s gloriously artistic trash to everyone I meet, fully in the knowledge of what it is.
Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming now on Netflix