Velvet Buzzsaw review: Netflix film oscillates between satire and camp horror, possessing virtues of neither
Velvet Buzzsaw, the new Netflix original film, is a vapid, self-congratulatory mess that’s as satisfying as watching paint dry, or slowly drip off the canvas, as is the case here
Velvet Buzzsaw, the new Netflix original film, is a vapid, self-congratulatory mess that’s as satisfying as watching paint dry, or slowly drip off the canvas, as is the case here. This isn’t the first time Dan Gilroy has mounted an entire film on a single idea. But Nightcrawler, his last, sagely chose an economy of storytelling while dwelling on a single intriguing and challenging character. Velvet Buzzsaw’s narrative pendulates frustratingly between satire and camp horror, possessing the virtues of neither. It lacks a strong centre because the narrative keeps shifting simplistically from one main character to the other well beyond the sell-by date of Gilroy’s not-so-novel idea. It’s not too long before Velvet Buzzsaw ends up as that none too rare commodity, a boring film full of mesmerising acting talent.
The film begins with Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an influential art critic, attending a show at Rhodora Haze’s (Rene Russo) art gallery. His friend Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is with him. Josephina works for Haze and is losing favour with her boss owing to a turbulent love life that’s affecting her work. So she seems to be in luck when she finds a treasure trove of brilliant artwork following the demise of a previously unknown artist who lived in her apartment building. Vetril Dease’s paintings set the art world on fire. Vandewalt, Haze and Josephina think they’ve have hit the jackpot before strange things start to happen. As people connected to the artwork begin to die one by one, Josephina wonders whether she should have heeded Dease’s final request and burned all his paintings.
None of the major characters in the film are nice. They look at people the way they look at art: as commodities. Gilroy sets his film in a sterile world possessing a sanitised, artificial attractiveness. These people have no soul, or they’ve conveniently chosen to forget it. Gilroy brings that point home by painting their character in a single shade, and wrapping a series of amazingly designed clothes around them. Dease’s art is the rake that exposes the rot underneath. When things start to go amiss, everyone apart from Vandewalt chooses to ignore the portents. But the sequence of events is so suffocatingly ordered and the writing so bland that it ends up defeating the motive of Gilroy’s enterprise.
Not only does the film lack focus, it also selects and abandons characters to the viewer’s dismay. John Malkovich, a perennially intriguing presence in any film, plays a wildly successful painter undergoing a creative crisis. Like everyone else, he is mesmerised by Dease’s work the moment he sees it. Gilroy pursues this strand of creative stasis vis-a-vis being humbled by another artist’s work before disposing of the character altogether. That’s the last we see of him. A potentially fecund sub-plot is abandoned after being introduced, perhaps owing to the sheer numbers of characters. It is symptomatic of the general state of confusion that infects the film. Here and there, we are treated to an exhilarating set-piece or two, usually in the form of a stylishly executed death. The dead end up as props in extant artworks. Gilroy achieves wildly differing effects from these set pieces. When he can’t lodge them in there with aplomb, he falls back upon the comforts offered by the randomness of horror to dispose of them. The state of affairs only serves to reinforce the fundamental problem with Velvet Buzzsaw: morphing into what it set out to satirise and implode in the first place.
The less one focuses on its virtues as a horror film, the better. There are none. Primarily because camp horror is meant to be enjoyable. Having made an unsuccessful attempt at satirising the art world for a substantial run-time, the camp section arrives as an afterthought, a last resort to settle the mess. To undertake this within a world so devoid of atmospherics and engagement with the indifferent characters makes it all the more strenuous. A laughably rendered judgment on the fates of a set of lifeless characters follows.
Velvet Buzzsaw is further let down by bewildering editing choices that abruptly cut off the odd chance of emotional engagement we get with the characters. All that is definitely part of Gilroy’s plan to immerse the viewer in a world where warmth and honesty is conspicuous in its absence. He wants us to be disgusted by these people and their machinations. He wants us to believe they’ve earned the judgment that is passed on them. But the story he tells fails to earn the length of time it takes him to convey his message. Couple that with the rickety scaffolding of a single idea to bear the weight of his film and you have a perfectly vacuous exercise in vanity filmmaking, a vice he’d set out to censure in the first place.
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