Released: 1st February
Seen: 1st February
According to Urban Dictionary, the term “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a term with two possible meanings. The first one is a slang term for vagina (Which the dictionary itself uses in the sentence “As the conversation became sexually charged, she could feel her Velvet Buzzsaw begin to hum”). The second being an extreme oral sex technique where the male essentially motorboats the aforementioned vagina, meaning it’s theoretically possible to Velvet Chainsaw a Velvet Chainsaw. Interestingly, both these meanings of the term predate the conception of this movie by decades and neither one really has anything to do with the actual content of the film. It’s a vulgar title that elicits an image that the film itself chooses not to use; it merely refers to it when one female character explains that she used to take that on as a name in a moment that implies it reflects on her past. It’s a nickname that links her to female art groups like Pussy Riot, an artist group that intentionally chose a name that suggests sexuality in order to gain attention so that their message can be heard. Now, I bring all this up to show you the disconnect between this film and the very idea it’s trying to explore… that art critique done for the purposes of profit is a crime worthy of the death of the critic and all those who might profit from their work. This idea makes this a fun film to try and talk about, but let’s see what happens.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a story set in the high class art world where critics like Morf Vindealt (Jake Gyllenhaal) can create legends or destroy footnotes, where gallery owners like Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) care only about how a collection can make a fortune and ambitious go-getters like Josephina (Zawe Ashton) will do anything they can to curry favour with those who decide just what is and isn’t art. When a large amount of art is found in the apartment of a deceased man who demanded that all his work be destroyed, it’s seen as a chance by the ambitious people who control the means of displaying and curating art to seize on the mystery of art by an unknown who died before their art could be appreciated (reminiscent of Vivian Maier, a photographer whose work was only appreciated when her work was discovered after her death). However, art is not kind to those who seek to profit from it at the expense of the artist and so one by one, the workers of the art gallery either go missing or turn up dead alongside the very artwork they exploited in order to make their fortune. It’s the revenge of the artwork against those who might deny it the ability to be seen by the people whom the art was originally made for.
The film is not very subtle in its digs towards the world of art criticism, a world that could use a bit of prodding and poking to keep it on its toes. We’re never really invited to like the critic, the gallery owner, the upstart, the man who hangs the pictures (Billy Magnussen) or the competitive art saleswoman (Toni Collette). Indeed the only people in the entire film who we, the audience, are ever offered a chance to like are the two artists that we get to know. We’re allowed to like the painter named Piers (John Malkovich) whom we are first introduced to by the critic and the art saleswoman talking about how he was a better artist when he was a full blown alcoholic. We’re given permission to like the upcoming artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs) whom we are introduced to by the gallery owner when we hear about him living on the street six months before the first gallery opening of the film. Everyone else we’re invited to hate due to their pomposity around the discussion of art.
We, the audience, are expected to be shocked by the art world’s over-analysis of a piece. Analysis to the point where it’s impossible to enjoy the raw talent taken to assemble the artwork and it’s torn down to merely redone concepts and jokes about how artists were better when they were downing multiple bottles of Chateau de Chasselas every day. We’re meant to find all this overt critique of the art world insufferable enough that, when the carnage begins, we can revel in the hoity-toity assholes suffering as the very art that they abused turns into the method of their demise… and god damn do I wish they’d gone further with any of this than they did because I would’ve delighted in it.
Do you know how hard it was for me to try and write like a high-class critic, as this film would like to portray them? I undoubtedly sucked at it (I’m aware I’m never going to sound like one of those critics that use 800 words to describe the colour red and I doubt I ever will) and trying to sound like the characters in this film feels exactly like being a uni student with an essay due the next day so you proceed to write an elaborate screed where you repeat the same points a few times per sentence in order to reach the 2000 word count that you’ve been set by the curriculum. I only just got out of that life, and now I get pulled back into it because this film begs for that kind of thing. The art world is, objectively, full of pompous assholes so for an artist to take a shot at that world and mock it? That’s the kind of thing I live for, I literally stated during my time as one of those pretentious art students that there is nothing that delights me more than an artwork that takes a shot at the pompous nature of the art world. I class my favourite piece of contemporary art as Artists Shit by Piero Manzoni, a work where the artist claimed to have put 30 grams of his own faeces into sealed tin cans and sold it for the price of gold. I love art that mocks the art world, it’s my jam… but this film just doesn’t do it that well.
There is a difference between mocking the actual issues in the art world (The sexism, the price gouging, the idea that a single person’s opinion is all that’s required to consider something art) and just calling everyone involved an asshole. This film leans on the latter whenever possible and it doesn’t really help. The critic is susceptible to outside influences clouding his judgement, declaring an artwork bad purely because he’s sleeping with the up and comer. The up and comer is easily led, lying about how she discovered the artwork because the gallery owner has decided that the best way to sell it is to say it was found in a dumpster. The gallery owner is shown to be ruthless by doing anything she can to sell the art, even when it’s clearly causing those around her to drop like flies. These aren’t real issues in the art world; this is a bunch of assholes acting like assholes that get their comeuppance. They’re caricatures of caricatures that resemble an idea of reality but not an actual reality. They can still be interesting to watch and I give genuine praise to the film for having an openly bisexual character (Count how many of those exist in cinema, good luck) and a cast where women are able to really show off what they can do, but the satirical bite this film is trying to have feels lost when the targets of that satire feel like they’re bordering on pure parody.
Then we get to the actual meat of this film, the moments when the characters are brutally murdered by the art itself. This is where the film works best – when it’s an artsy slasher where the killer is a painting of monkeys. Some of the deaths are so gloriously over the top that it puts the purest smile on my horror loving face. The idea of the art itself coming to life and taking on those that hurt it works best during these sequences; most of the death scenes are gloriously elaborate and fun. Even the ones that aren’t as explicit as I’d like (You’re on Netflix; you have carte blanche that the horror slashers in the 80’s only wish they’d had. Embrace it) are still interesting enough that they make the film worth watching. The high point of the movie is in the trailer, where someone is murdered and then assumed to be part of the artwork that murdered them. I almost wish that kind of thing happened more often in the film because that was a hilarious critique of how we view the gallery space, that anything within the white walls of the gallery must be art because that’s how we’ve decided to define art. Scenes like that are moments when the satire works, but having an artwork just make someone crash a car and that’s it… it’s not as good as it could be.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a satirical horror film that only does satire right every now and then. When the film hits that sweet spot where the satire is so pointed that it could cut glass, it’s brilliant. The acting is great and I love some of the visuals that are created by the carnage of the artworks, but I wanted so much more. This film had so much going for it and would’ve been much more fun if it just went for broke, but it only does that in bursts. Maybe it’s just the problem of high expectations and when the film doesn’t meet those, it feels like a disappointment. It’s still enjoyable, but it could’ve been so much more than that.