Velvet Buzzsaw Review: An Oddly Optimistic Film About Deadly Art

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- There’s a lot of bad art in Dan Gilroy’s horror movie, Velvet Buzzsaw, and not just the kind of bad where people see it and walk away muttering “derivative.” Here, the art is evil.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because before we get to killer paintings, we have to watch Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars as the influential art critic Morf Vandewalt, murmur gibberish in front of canvases. “They’re visionary,” he says at one point, flipping through a folio of works on paper. “Mesmeric! An absolute indelible mix of mediums!”

Velvet Buzzsaw Review: An Oddly Optimistic Film About Deadly Art

Hollywood is rarely kind to contemporary art. There was Julianne Moore as the “vaginal” artist Maude in The Big Lebowski; Catherine O’Hara as Delia, the kooky ­sculptor in Beetlejuice; and Steven Berkoff as Victor Maitland, the drug-smuggling art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop.

But despite its borderline slapstick violence, Velvet Buzzsaw, which opened on Feb. 1 in select theaters and is now streaming on Netflix, is kinder and in some ways more realistic than its predecessors. Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze is a former punk musician turned successful art dealer; Toni Collette is Gretchen, an avaricious museum curator who becomes an unbearable jerk the minute she starts working as a private art adviser; even Tom Sturridge’s character, Jon Dondon (these names!), is fairly plausible as a ­market-driven dealer stuck with lines including “Our gallery has cutting-edge analytics to maximize deal flow and global demand.”

The movie also gets decent chunks of the art world right. “We peddle perception, thin as a bubble,” Rhodora says, explaining why she’s unloading an artist’s work before bad news leaks out. “There’s a tax issue, and my client wants [his art] exhibited immediately,” Gretchen barks at a museum director. “Everything is on reserve,” says a smirking dealer, bluffing at an opening.

Velvet Buzzsaw Review: An Oddly Optimistic Film About Deadly Art

Events diverge from reality only once that oldest of art myths, the Undiscovered Genius, creaks into the story. A low-level gallery assistant named Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, stumbles across a dead neighbor’s body and, soon after, his body of work. She immediately recognizes that his thousand paintings are masterpieces and takes possession of the collection. (In fact, the art looks like a cross between Balthus, Francis Bacon, and Hernan Bas, and not in a good way.)

With the help of her boss, Rhodora, Josephina quickly makes a fortune selling the paintings to an insatiable collector base. Morf, the critic, gets in on the action, hyping the work, negotiating exclusive rights to write a book about it, and acquiring a few pieces for himself in the process.

And then things start to go wrong. The paintings, it turns out, are imbued with some sort of malevolent, murderous spirit. Anyone who’s profited from them is cursed, and as the art starts to kill characters off, the movie steadily transitions from satire into a bloodbath. The well-trod message about greed, one might say, is derivative. Even the poor art handler Bryson, played by Billy Magnussen, isn’t spared.

Velvet Buzzsaw Review: An Oddly Optimistic Film About Deadly Art

But it was Magnussen’s character that tipped me off to the realization that—with the exception of all the murder—Velvet Buzzsaw’s Los Angeles art world is a kind of creative-­industry paradise. Openings at galleries are packed; art is either good or not good; people read art criticism (“You are our god,” Russo’s character says to Morf); and the art handler, in an opening scene, is briefly in charge of a dealer’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach.

It’s not only logistical quirks that make the world of Velvet Buzzsaw so optimistic; it’s also the movie’s notion that art-­making is inherently meaningful. When superstar artist Piers (John Malkovich) quits drinking and loses his creative spark, it’s a genuine crisis. Even as his army of studio assistants cranks out Piers-branded skateboards and print editions, he stands alone in an empty room with an almost blank canvas. He’s a good artist (and we know that because he wears a neckerchief and people say so) who refuses to make a bad painting.

“All art is dangerous,” Rhodora purrs, and for Velvet Buzzsaw’s 113 minutes, we get to pretend that’s actually true.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net, Chris Rovzar

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