By setting itself in the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw has done something rather canny: it’s given itself licence to not entirely make sense. Feel like it’s missing a bit of glue to stick the plot together? Well, art is all about interpreting what you’re presented. Absolutely baffled by its intentions? Art is meant to challenge. Whatever you think of it, it can claim that was the point.
Thankfully, it’s never pretentious. Packed with ideas, Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t prissily nurture them but slaps them about with Jackson Pollack-ish abandon. An ensemble piece, it picks its way among a group of awful monsters from the art world. Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a highly self-regarding critic who is less good at analysing himself. Rhodora (Rene Russo) is an ex-punk gallery owner who makes a fortune flogging the next big thing. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is Rhodora’s ambitious assistant who gets sexually involved with Morf (to say they get romantically involved would imply either has feelings). Gretchen (Toni Collette) is an art museum curator whose manner is as severe as her haircut. When Josephina discovers a stash of macabre paintings in the apartment of a dead neighbour this whole group declare him an undiscovered genius. Everyone wants his work. But there’s something up with his paintings: anyone who possesses them sees nightmarish visions and dies in bizarre ways.
In Nightcrawler, which also starred Russo and Gyllenhaal, writer-director Tony Gilroy drew a Los Angeles that was seedy and worn, where everything felt like it needed a wipe down. Velvet Buzzsaw equally strongly captures another side of the same city, where everything is expensive, hard-angled and polished, unbesmirched by real life. Gilroy establishes his world in long, languorous shots through white rooms full of people in carefully considered outfits that look like worn for the first time that day. The cleanliness of it all gives him a blank canvas for the madness of the operatic deaths the paintings cause. One man is attacked by monkeys leering out of a portrait. Another character meets her end when devoured by a very expensive sculpture. Another by a work they dismissed as powerless.
The horror scenes, silly as they are, really work. Gilroy has all the rhythms down, playing with different parts of the genre, from haunting to slasher to grand guignol. If they’re not quite likely to make you keep all the lights on in case your Ikea prints kill you in your sleep, they are weirdly scary.
It’s not fully clear exactly what the point of all this is. Possibly it’s that great art is wasted on those who can afford it – there are repeated references to people buying paintings then locking them away, their value being monetary rather than anything more soulful – but it doesn’t insist that you understand it to enjoy it.
The cast are all terrific fun, sinking their claws into their dreadful ghouls, each so awful their deaths are never mourned. It’s big and messy and silly and funny and a little bit disgusting. Good art? Who can officially say, but certainly deserves to be seen by as many people as possib
- Release date: February 1, 2019
- Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton