Like many die-hard film fans, I was sad to miss Sundance Film Festival this year. It marks the start of a new year of films we’ll be talking about through to next year’s Oscars, and it can be hard to have to wait for some of the gems that premiere there to find their way to theaters across the country. Enter: Netflix.
Since getting into the original content and distribution game, Netflix has claimed some solid Official Selections out of Sundance, making them available to anyone anywhere just weeks or days after the film festival wraps up. Or, in the case of Velvet Buzzsaw, before the festival even ends. Sundance continues through the weekend, but the new film written and directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) is now available to stream on the ubiquitous platform. Reuniting Gilroy with his Nightcrawler stars—Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo—Velvet Buzzsaw is a pop art painting come to life, a spot-on satire of the art world (or really any industry that pops up around creative endeavors…ahem, film festivals…).
Gyllenhaal stars as Morf Vandewalt (Morf? We’re already poking fun…), an art critic whose reviews can make or break a show, a piece, a career. He arrives at Miami’s annual Art Basel event to see and be seen, and in no time he’s assessing new work: this one’s derivative and uninspired, that one’s innovative and game-changing. There are air kisses and passed drinks and everyone’s patting themselves on the back for being so cultured as to have an opinion about everything on every wall. Russo is Rhodora Haze (these names!), an art dealer about to lose one esteemed client (John Malkovich, always a delight) and gain another, newcomer Damrish (Daveed Diggs, also always a delight). Her assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), gets some bad news about the guy she’s seeing and falls into Morf’s arms, though he’s technically still living with the man he’d been seeing. And then there’s Gretchen (Toni Colette), the museum curator turned private art consultant who knows everyone and isn’t afraid to strike a deal using every trick in the book.
We’ve met all these characters and more within the first twenty minutes and the real plot—about newly discovered art, a rush to promote and sell it and the very disturbing things that happen in the process—hasn’t even kicked in yet. Each character is just that, an overdrawn caricature of a type: the sensitive critic who believes everything he says; the brash art dealer who’s all business behind the designer clothes and calculating charm; the curator with the severe bob and color block wardrobe looking for an edge wherever she can find it; even the up-and-coming artist from the streets who doesn’t play the game the way he should. All of it, at least until things start going really wrong for everyone involved, is a riot; anyone who’s ever been to a gallery opening or a post-film cocktail reception or [fill in your choice of art-centric event] knows exactly who each of these people are and how they work together in this very specific ecosystem.
Satire works, of course, because while what it’s skewering may be based in truth, it takes its commentary to extremes, allowing us to see in stark relief the absurdity of our own actions and perceptions. Velvet Buzzsaw solidly understands this, as the stakes become ever higher—and more gruesome—as the film progresses. The discovery of a trove of artwork by Josephine’s recently deceased neighbor sets in motion a scary sequence of events as everyone in this wicked game tries to get their hands on a piece of it. The discovery is career-changing for Josephine; Morf will get a book deal out of it; if she plays her cards right, Rhodora will sell more from this artist than all her other clients combined. Of course, if it were all that easy, there wouldn’t be much film here at all.
It’d be a spoiler to go into exactly what befalls this narcissistic, self-serving group, but suffice it to say that soon, enough goes wrong that Morf and others are convinced the art may be to blame. And yet, horrific as it gets, these imbeciles push on, driven by greed, ego and ambition. As Rhodora puts it, “We don’t sell durable goods. We peddle perception, thin as a bubble.” And anything that threatens to pop that bubble is ultimately a threat to their very livelihood.
Velvet Buzzsaw may not be a film we’re still talking about in a year, but as a biting commentary on art, criticism and egos run amuck, it’s equally stinging and entertaining. Gyllenhaal alone makes it worth adding this one to your queue, his animated, overly wrought performance exactly the right pitch for this high-strung spoof. The thread of terror running throughout, potentially misplaced a lesser film, is in fact what makes the satire all the more sharp.