Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.
Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.
Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.
Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.
I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.
There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.