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‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ (2019) Review: No Death, No Art

By: Larissa Couto

When art has the power to mesmerize the viewer, truth becomes secondary. But even when art seems like the final expression, the industry of the art world appears to reinforce its values: the art world doesn’t breath aesthetics and emotions—it’s always looking for a price tag to bring the public back to the truth. Floating in satire, the critic with an artistic Midas touch, the representatives of the art industry, artists, and artworks find themselves in a horror story that involves evil forces and criticism of the art business. With a thematic that could easily be explored with tedious academicism, director Dan Gilroy prefers the horror genre: which allows the picture to be better digested but doesn’t save it from boredom.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s art elite is composed of Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), Gretchen (Toni Collette), and Josephina (Zawe Ashton). All are moved by greed; they’re the people artists need to convince that what they’re making is valuable art. This process starts with Vandewalt, the critic with the power not only to recognize art, but who corroborate the artwork as legitimate inside the art market. During the film we’re introduced to two artists, one beginning his career, played by Daveed Diggs, and another, played by John Malkovich, experiencing a crisis in his work after becoming sober. While one is promised big deals with the opportunity to be original, the older artist considers starting drinking again to spark some creativity in his work. After presenting the art world’s mechanism, the movie turns the focus to it’s main character: Vetril Dease's work.

Dease is a deceased artist that asked for all his pictures to be burned after his death. After finding those pictures, Josephina sees the biggest opportunity of her career, and Dease’s posthumously released art is considered a work of genius and becomes an instant success. What Josephina and her colleagues didn’t expect was the revenge that Dease’s art would enact. One by one, the pieces begin to haunt and kill. If Velvet Buzzsaw has achieved a good balance between critique and suspense so far, after the killings begin the film enters the realm of (bad) cheap horror. From now on it becomes a hipster version of Final Destination, losing that balance and accepting the trash horror genre fully. If that balance had been maintained, the deaths might have been more interesting—but the critique proposed by the director becomes shallow and the satire is not strong enough to carry the story.

With good comments on the art world and an art industry that threatens free expression and creativity, Gilroy is clever to touch on topics like respect for the artist’s intention. This sort of supernatural evil force that kills those who want to go against the artist’s intention is not only forcing the artist’s possession of his own work, but also erasing those who don’t see the artist: only seeing the value of his work. A few cliches such as the art expert staring at a pile of trash as if it were an artwork (or the dead body being seen as part of the art installation) work to satirize the world Gilroy is making fun of, but don’t work as a punchline due to their predictability. Gilroy misses the chance to really dive into satire, assuming that a “good” bad movie needs to make fun of itself as well.

Someone that seemed to grasp the humorous tone of their character was Jake Gyllenhaal as Vandewalt. Vandewalt’s angst for definition turns into a psychological torment, which adds some layers to the character: an interesting aspect of the story (and Gyllenhaal’s acting) that we didn’t find in Vandewalt’s colleagues, unfortunately. With acting that walks the line of caricature, the deaths—the climax of Velvet Buzzsaw—are something we focus on for most of the film but don’t work completely. They’re not horrifying, funny, or even smart for the most part—only two deaths seem actually surprising and worthy of the horror genre.

Among all the killing, those who outlive Dease’s fury are those that compromised with art as their final goal—the last victim, for example, is someone who had the chance to live art (punk art) but was corrupted. In the end, as a last humorous critique, the movie draggs the viewer into the role of Vandewalt: asking whether what we’re seeing is art or not, we stare at drawings at the seashore. Overall, Velvet Buzzsaw is a shift in tone between being pretentious and boring—most of the time, making a good bad film means having the guts to recognize its pretentiousness and boringness on the screen, something that missed in Velvet Buzzsaw to make it great entertainment. Or, in other words, intention is not everything in art.

Grade: C

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