The art world is the pinnacle of sophistication, a place where the wealthy go to flaunt their status and rub elbows with the tastemakers and influencers. It’s also a dark, depraved and highly judgmental space, where slight perception can be the difference between a piece of street art and a $100 million Basquiat. Despite galleries that are filled with color and culture, the spaces can quickly turn horrific, and that’s where Netflix’s ultra-strange original film “Velvet Buzzsaw” comes into play.
The film comes from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who is no stranger to a dissection of media. This was displayed in his earlier work “Nightcrawler,” which skewered the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of cable news networks. Part satire, part horror, this soapy piece of cinema is a bit obnoxious as it celebrates the purity of art and the collapse of the bourgeois with its tongue firmly planted in cheek.
We enter the Los Angeles art world through the eyes of snobbish, sexually fluid Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), who relishes in sinking a show with just the stroke of his keyboard. He professes, “a bad review is much better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” and in some ways he may be right. His ideology is shared with top gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Renee Russo), who games the system to be, as she calls it, a “peddler of perception,” rather than a curator of culture. There’s some venomous shade to be thrown at the self serious nature of this community that has more to say about the monetary value of a piece and the power that wields than the actually art itself.
In the film we are introduced to a street artist named Damrish (Daveed Diggs) who has been recently discovered has an outlook on the world that isn’t easily swayed by brightly lit white walls, fancy drinks and price tags. While being squired around by Haze, she quickly flexes her status on the emerging talent by boasting, “this is just a safari to find the next hunt and eat it.” The film suggests those without passion will meet their demise by their own undoing. Gilroy’s message is bold, but it’s hard to take much of what goes on here too seriously.
There’s always an opportunity to be exploited, and that is seen when Rhodora’s assistant, Josefina (Zawe Ashton), discovers the work of her recently deceased neighbor, a troubled painter named Vetril Dease. He willed his work to be destroyed upon his death, so naturally Josefina acquires it unlawfully and presents it to her boss and colleagues who quickly become seduced by the work and the prospect it brings. The paintings start to have a mind of their own — this is art that literally kills.
Aside from being a campy comedy that jabs at the arts, “Velvet Buzzsaw” fashions itself as a horror film that condemns those who dare forsake the act of creating. It’s a film that’s filled with contradictions by casting judgment on those it doesn’t deem worthy of its divinity. The paintings start to shape shift and distort the eyes of the viewer. Morf starts to lose his grip on reality, and his wit and sophisticated lifestyle start to become his own worst enemy. The film finds its identity in being a shrewd look at blending the world of high art with the low brow aesthetic of a Lifetime made for TV movie.
Rather than acting as a full-scale indictment, “Velvet Buzzsaw” finds time to poke fun at the absurdity of fine arts in the modern age. For all the tastemakers and those who celebrate the unattainable lifestyle that critics, gallerists, curators and artists champion, there’s still room to explore the price that comes with being relevant.