Velvet Buzzsaw ***
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Colette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich
Director: Dan Gilroy
From Dan Gilroy, director of Nightcrawler, comes a new collaboration with its stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in this fantasy-horror set amongst the artistic elite of Los Angeles. With Gyllenhaal playing a LGBT+ character for the first time since Brokeback Mountain – it’s not as simple as calling him “gay” or “bi” – this is essentially a high-spec horror movie with an A-List cast in which we’re watching them meet grizzly and imaginative deaths one by one… a bit like Final Destination set in the Tate Modern.
Nina (Russo) is an ex-rockstar turned art dealer, who is renowned for representing only the most acclaimed artists of the moment. Amongst these are both rising and fading stars (Diggs and Malkovich, respectively), but attaching her name to their work is a sure route to world acclaim. When her receptionist Josephina (Ashton) finds the body of her elderly neighbour in their shared hallway, she learns from their janitor that the dead man, Vetril Dease, was a painter and has instructed in his will to burn all his work. But when she creeps into his apartment, she realises that his work is astonishingly dark and beautiful and she steals all of it. Unable to keep her discovery a secret, Nina takes the full collection onto her books and launches Dease as an unknown posthumous prodigy, while esteemed and influential art critic Lou (Gyllenhaal) researches the artist’s past. As he discovers disturbing facts about Dease, Nina’s staff (Magnussen, Dyer) and competitors (Colette, Sturridge) begin to start disappearing one by one.
Fictional movies about art are normally spoiled by the quality of the art not living up to the medium in the real world, however Dease’s work here is truly interesting and fabulously dark. You can completely understand why the art world goes so crazy for his work and what is probably most interesting about Velvet Buzzsaw is the way it places the art word under the microscope, showing how dealers and critics are entirely responsible for an artist’s reputation and subsequent value. Nina and Lou are incredibly influential people, but have very little artistic talent themselves. In fact, Lou is so used to giving critique that he simply can’t switch it off, even at the funerals of his colleagues: “Look at the colour of that coffin!”
The art world is depicted as shallow, flighty and temporal, much like the newscasting business in Nightcrawler. The decision to set this in LA means that we’re seeing an art scene that lives alongside the Hollywood celebrity machine and at face value, it seems to have little more value than it, despite being supposedly more high-brow. But with it set in LA, the film’s aesthetic is sleek, modern and sunny, when its subject matter is considerably darker. Had the film been set in, say, New York or Paris, where the cities and the skies can create atmosphere by themselves, we would see a much more intellectual version of Art, instead of this high-gloss plastic imitation.
Russo and Gyllenhaal give perfectly adequate performances, with the latter playing an amusing caricature of a pompous critic who believes his opinion is just as important, if not more so, than the art itself. While the film certainly positions him as gay, we actually only see him have sex with Josephina, which it gives no attempt to explain. Colette is probably the most entertaining of the bunch, while John Malkovich comes right at the bottom of the pile, whose presence in the film serves as nothing but a distraction with a part that’s wholly window-dressing and surplus to the narrative.
It’s an entertaining romp, but it never fully succeeds in being either scary or funny. And as it expects us to join the dots (it takes a while to work out that it’s not Dease’s own art that’s killing people, but just art in general… which is just as bizarre as it sounds), the film is annoying in its refusal to tell us what on earth is going on. With paintings that come to life on the wall, sculptures that move and installations that can murder its audience, this gives a whole new angle to “killer art”. It half explains who Dease was, half explains what the art is doing and half explains the characters’ back stories. Unfortunately, all these halves do not add up to a whole, leaving the whole film feeling somewhat half-baked.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.