Firstpost at Sundance: Netflix's Velvet Buzzsaw turns from artworld satire into campy, supernatural slasher
After his powerful allegory of media sensationalism and opportunistic capitalism in The Nightcrawler (2014), writer-director Dan Gilroy turns his attention to the LA art industrial complex and all its shallow, snooty patrons, critics and artists in his new film, Velvet Buzzsaw.
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs from 24 January to 3 February and Firstpost is at the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah to bring you the latest news, reviews and interviews from America's largest independent film festival.
In one of the most hysterically funny and telling scenes in Velvet Buzzsaw, a museum curator's arm is comically chopped off when she tries to place her hand in a sculpture and she bleeds to death on the floor of the art gallery. When the security guards open the gallery in the morning, they think her warped body lying in a pool of blood is part of the exhibit as unaware visitors take photos of the "art installation" and the exhibit goes viral on social media.
After his powerful allegory of media sensationalism and opportunistic capitalism in The Nightcrawler (2014), writer-director Dan Gilroy turns his attention to the LA art industrial complex and all its shallow, snooty patrons, critics and artists in his new film, Velvet Buzzsaw. Reuniting with Jake Gyllenhaal and wife Rene Russo, Gilroy curates a collection of sharp visual gags (like the aforementioned) aimed at the cultural elite in Netflix's gonzo horror satire.
The film opens with an establishing shot of Art Basel, Miami Beach — America's premier mecca for making and buying modern art. Here, as the camera moves around the art fair, we are introduced to a host of well-dressed artists, gallery-owners and curators air-kissing and gossiping. There is the acerbic art critic and tastemaker Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), punk rocker-turned-gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo), her ambitious assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton), rival gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), veteran artist Piers (John Malkovich), budding artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), the glorified Mr. Fixit Bryson (Billy Magnussen) and the farcically unfortunate gallery assistant cum scream queen Coco (Natalia Dyer).
Just as Morf is growing disillusioned with the LA art scene and criticism ("Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining"), Josephina discovers a treasure trove of hypnotic paintings (with strong Géricault and Goya vibes) in the apartment of her reclusive, recently-deceased neighbour, Vitril Dease. Despite his explicit instructions that all his artwork be destroyed upon his passing, it becomes the object of everyone's desire in the art community with everyone trying to buy a piece of the treasure. But soon, strange, sinister events start to unfold around those in possession of the work as they are haunted and killed by a supernatural force, Final Destination-style.
Velvet Buzzsaw is brimming with ideas but is short on narrative. It begins as an incisive parody of the art world with but then turns into a campy supernatural slasher horror film, where characters are punished for their moral transgressions. Gilroy fills the second half with creative, ludicrous set pieces to kill these characters, rather than provide a clear, satisfying resolution. While its inherent silliness offers plenty of moments of levity, it also risks trivialising its social commentary.
As Gilroy takes a dig at the rampant superficiality and pretensions of the art world denizens, he also revisits a theme he had explored much more effectively in The Nightcrawler — that of opportunistic exploitation, as we see gallery owners, curators and critics exploit a dead artist's work for their own benefit.
The film boasts some terrific performances, especially from Gyllenhaal, Ashton and Russo. Gyllenhaal is hilarious as the catty, gender fluid Morf, who criticises everything from the latest art installations to the music at a funeral. He could turn into a quoteable, meme-friendly figure, with such quippy one-liners like "We're peddling perception," and "I do a lot of pilates and Peloton." But with too many characters — played by some phenomenal actors — fighting for screen space, someone like John Malkovich ends up being underutilised.
However overindulgent it may be, Velvet Buzzsaw is still a highly entertaining satire about the culturati, who often mistake their elitism for intellectualism. That alone makes it worth at least a one-time watch.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnusson, John Malkovich
Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming on Netflix on 1 February.
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