“Art Kills in this Movie”: Velvet Buzzsaw – Reviewed


Dan Gilroy’s latest film Velvet Buzzsaw, which arrived on Netflix this week, finds room for high art and high camp amid some grizzly and inventive deaths, finds Mike Pinnington…

Art world satire posing as supernatural thriller, or supernatural thriller posing as art world satire? Well, who’s to say it can’t be both (or neither). Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) begins at Art Basel Miami Beach, self-described as “the premier art show of the Americas”. Anybody who’s ever attended an art fair may well recognise the characters, hierarchies and snark that pervades aspects of the scene, one Dan Gilroy’s new film, which premiered at Sundance last month, seems intent on nailing.

In fact, relative enjoyment may well depend on the viewer’s degree of proximity to the artworld clichés on which the film, early doors at least, hangs its hat. You have the ambitious unsettled curator, competing gallerists and their underlings – precarious workers taking all the shit thrown at them with a smile, because, what else are they going to do? Then there’s the moonlighting art-handler, telling everyone who’ll listen he’s also an artist; the older statesman, at an impasse, whose better, non-teetotal days are behind him, and the bright young thing, on an upward trajectory, wooed by all around him while remaining loyal to his artists’ collective. It’s a scathing and sometimes 2D indictment, particularly of the upper echelons of the world in which it is set; needless to say, resentment, greed and jealousy hover at every turn.

“From here on in, things get a little The Picture of Dorian Grey”

Then, on her way to work one day, gallery assistant Josephina (played with élan by Zawe Ashton) is caught in fate’s grip as she discovers the body of a reclusive artist – the fabulously named Ventril Dease – in her apartment building. As anyone else would (?!?!), Josephina steals Dease’s work, setting in motion the events on which the rest of the film turn. Seen by a critic and taste maker, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf, the paintings are declared to be the work of an ‘outsider artist’ genius (one is put in mind here of Henry Darger). Morf’s pronouncement is like dropping chum into a barrel of sharks, as the great and good are quickly intoxicated by the scent, fighting for bragging rights and to monetise this new art star. From here on in, things get a little – a lot in fact – The Picture of Dorian Grey, for the ills of Dease’s life (abusive father, the suspicious burning down of the family home) live on through his paintings. It also gets pretty kitsch and soapy pretty fast.


Depending on who you ask, there are different perceptions about art, and Rene Russo’s scheming gallerist glibly trots out a couple of them in back-to-back scenes. The first, that “all art is dangerous”; then, damningly, “we don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception – thin as a bubble”. In Velvet Buzzsaw, both are true, and art kills in this movie both figuratively and literally. In fact death, when it comes, does so frequently (and so ruthlessly) here that when one character mutters an aside to herself in a closed gallery “over my dead body”, you can’t fail to know what’s coming next. The following day, with the space opened to the public (including a school group), we learn that “people just walked by [her body] like she’s part of the exhibit”. A comment perhaps on the unforgiving nature of working in what can be a cut-throat world.

But let’s not kid ourselves, hot on the heels of The Square (2017) and documentaries The Price of Everything (2018) and Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World (2017), it’s clear that Velvet Buzzsaw (now available to stream on Netflix) sits uncomfortably in that kind of company. Which is okay. As I said, it’s kitschy and soapy, unashamedly so; there are moments of levity here, while also managing the odd scare  – and some highly inventive deaths along the way.

Mike Pinnington

Images from Velvet Buzzsaw, courtesy Netflix

Posted on 08/02/2019 by thedoublenegative