An Art Critique of a Film Critiquing Art. . .How Meta
By Erin Kirkpatrick
Staff Art Critic
There is an obvious irony in reviewing Netflix’s new film Velvet Buzzsaw, a film that has a deathly bone to pick with the art critics of the world; however, I love irony. Velvet Buzzsaw opened at Sundance film festival on January 21st and was released onto Netflix streaming service 5 days later on February 1st. While I typically don’t watch the Netflix ads placed at the top of the streaming services homepage, something about Velvet Buzzsaw hooked me enough to watch the trailer and then the full movie.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal (a favorite of director Dan Gilroy) as Mort Vandewalt, a campy bisexual art critic whose word is God within the film’s flashy LA art world. Throughout the film he and his associates, including museum buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette), post-punk art gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), her handyman (Billy Magnussen), up-and-comer and kiss-ass Ricky Blane (Peter Gadiot), and Morf’s lover and rising star gallerist Josephina (Zawe Ashton), learn what Rhodora Haze really meant when she sneers “all art is dangerous” in the third act.
One by one, the art world’s elite fall victim to murder at the hands of art, after Rhodora’s protégé Josephina steals her dead neighbor’s paintings and markets them for extreme profit. The neighbor, who literally drops dead in the films first act, left specific instructions to have the art burned. While the film remains vague on the specifics that led to the painting’s deathly abilities, it is to be assumed that the evil spirit comes from Josephina’s choice to make profit off a dead man’s art that never belonged to her. The film’s premise sounds like an art version of Final Destination, but the film’s satirical aspect makes it so much deeper.
While this movie could easily be placed within the confines of the current horror film renaissance, led by Jordan Peele’s Get Out, I think it has a closer connection to films like 2010’s Black Swan and 2016’s Neon Demon. All three films turn the world of an art scene, ballet, modeling, and now physical art, into a horror film based on the real life fears these trades place in people’s hearts. In Black Swan, it was an obsessed artist getting too deep into a role, leading to the main character losing perception of the real world and eventually killing herself. Neon Demon follows vapid, competitive models who turn violent and end up eating the main character. Velvet Buzzsaw, contains the arguably most relatable scary premise with art coming alive and murdering the art world’s elite in continuously more creative ways.
The films gore, with a character’s arm being ripped off from an spherical art installation, buzzsaw tattoos cutting into people’s skin, and paint consuming a character leaving her stuck within a graffiti filled wall, is only a supplement to the film’s most notable qualities; its humor.
In some ways the humor is quite meta, with a film (a piece of commercial art) ripping into how uncreative commercial art is, but overall the satire lands spectacularly. Jake Gyllenhaal, continuing with his mid-career trend of playing cartoonish men completely straight, shines in the film with pretentious one-liners. Examples include Mort staring deeply into a soul of a painting before whining, “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining” and telling the artist that his girlfriend cheated on him with “the admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated”. The humor, similar to most satires, furthers the film’s argument about the shallowness of the art world.
Morf’s comical brashness, like telling an artist when looking at his piece “No originality. No courage. My opinion.” furthers the films goal of dissuading people from buying into a business that profits the artistically un-talented vendors more than the actual artists. With Mort, the ostentatious art critique, having the power to define an artist’s success, and the supporting characters capitalizing on stolen art without regard for the work and pain that went in to it, it’s made apparent that the art world is a vapid and shallow business that pretends to be more relevant to society than it is. The power gallerist Rhodora Haze at one point explains to her protégé “We don’t sell durable goods, we sell perception.” The film, while being funny and scary, is making its message loud and clear.
Overall, the film is engaging, thoughtful, and conclusive in its message. The tone is singular to the film, mixing its humor, darkness, and satire in the best way possible. While people who don’t like gore, or the idea of mixing violence and humor, might not enjoy the film, I believe most people can find something they like within it. If “All art is dangerous”, this film is sure to get some dangerously angry reactions from the art world it so beautifully slaughtered.