A sequence of animated drawings open Velvet Buzzsaw, creating a window into the rituals of those involved within the contemporary art world. In a film that would seem to instantly capture its vision, writer-director Dan Gilroy is foreshadowing what is to come—such as the ignition of a flame that burns down a curtain—and ultimately provides a satirical, unhealthy view into the minds and operations of art industry professionals and their lifestyles.
As the film characterises the nature of its instalments, the acts of art criticism and experiencing art maintain their focus on the professionals at the forefront of the industry. The industry professionals—notorious art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), and the colleagues that surround them—exhibit an anarchy of greed, circulating in a pool of excess that stems from the characters’ gluttony for profit and consumption of the next best thing.
What sets the film in motion, introducing these central themes, is a set of mysterious circumstances that lead Josephina (Zawe Ashton) to discover, and later steal, the artwork of her reclusive, dead neighbour. Josephina introduces the pieces to Morf, who thinks that the pair share “a taste relationship”—one which eventually becomes something to haunt them. Morf becomes set on acquiring exclusive rights to produce a book on the unknown artist (later discovered to be Ventril Dease) through his relationship with Rhodora.
The gallery owner also manages to convince Josephina to work with her, explicitly implying that she will be in way over her head to exhibit the work on her own, while collaborating with Rhodora offers a quicker route to wealth and fame—two central motives for the film’s characters. As each characters’ appetite for greed increases, Velvet Buzzsaw mounts a critique of consumer culture and the lengths that individuals, caught up in a cycle of commercial gain, go to in order to refrain from becoming invisible in the world.
The first half of the film sees more focus on the comedic exchanges and cold encounters between the central characters. They set up and develop Velvet Buzzsaw‘s world of art, and the messages that reside inside of it. This quickly becomes tiring far too often, and the attention on this part prevents Velvet Buzzaw from developing any form of sinister, startling horror. When the horror elements are introduced, however, they take the form of a series of disturbances through a string of supernatural means in Dease’s artwork. These disturbances fall short in making a bold statement, other than the notion that greed and consumption should not allow dead bodies to be capitalised off, or that art should succumb to greed.
The ‘oh-my-god-moment’ that Rhodora desires from the art world comes to exist through Dease’s artwork, but this work is not fit for consumption. Instead, it takes revenge on the characters for exploiting it, as it was never meant to publicly surface. Dease’s artwork is the one that charges, mauls and devours the characters in the film—but the film’s core focus on personal drama between characters ultimately hinders the artwork from ever being truly effective in tackling the gluttony and consumption of the social elite.
The course of the narrative varies in structure and meaning, and in doing so, Velvet Buzzsaw can often lack any coherence with its intended messages. Instead, it opens itself up to a similar accusation of superficiality to the world that it is intending to critique. The statements that are produced through satire—namely the mentality of contemporary art professionals and audiences, and what they see as important and credible—often do not mix well with the film’s horror elements. In portraying a world of supposedly intelligent minds, the real horror seems to be that the characters lack any real conscience, any consideration of their moral decisions.
Still, the film does well to focus on an individual’s morals and what there is to gain and to lose. It drives us to consider the cynicism in our world; greed can lead to a complete disregard for others, who themselves can be used as objects for us to advance up the hierarchy, or conquered for personal achievement. Only in Velvet Buzzsaw could a funeral also be subject to critique—centred around competition in the form of art and greed, as respect becomes scarce.
Perhaps Velvet Buzzsaw can best be described as having too much critical attention, which unintentionally compromises the film and its interpretations. However, as the film tries to sustain the motivation to try and see the world in colour, it suggests that greed and desire can only result in downfall—a point proven when each central character comes face-to-face with their own mistakes. Once the characters become entangled in the wrath of the supernatural force, they shift sides, and have a taste of what it means to be consumed.
Even though the film becomes a living nightmare for its characters, and is at times questionable to watch, there is plenty of accurate characterisation and satisfying performances from its cast. If there is one statement that Velvet Buzzsaw does manage to achieve, it is that greed will always consume our world—a repeating cycle that we are inescapably bound up in.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now available to stream on Netflix.
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