Art at the Movies: Velvet Buzzsaw

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An art movie with Jake Gyllenhall? Yes, please. The trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw looked sufficiently weird to get my attention. However, the movie turned out to be more horror show than black comedy. 

Here’s my movie review from an artist’s perspective.

The camera’s critical eye begins high over Art Basel Miami, then sweeps over exclusive galleries, expensive art-filled homes, and high end art studios. Gyllenhall plays an influential art critic and his performance as a self-absorbed, sexually-ambiguous aesthete is hilarious, sad, and scarily familiar to anyone who has ever been to an art opening. The plot centres around the discovery of a huge trove of artwork by a just deceased artist. The ambitious gallerist Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, retrieves the work, despite the artist’s decree that everything be destroyed. Predictably, ignoring his death wish ignites a gory revenge upon everyone profiting from his eerie oeuvre.

A variety of artwork is featured in the movie. There’s a lot of installation art: fabricated rooms and mechanical boxes. And lots of retro abstraction. The dead artist’s works are naïve works that are more unpleasant because of their muddy colour palettes than their creepy subjects. When the paintings come alive in horror movie fashion that has shock value, but it’s not as interesting as art that’s disturbing on its own. For example, spending time with Goya’s black paintings, Henry Darger’s drawings or anything by Bosch is far more unsettling than any special effects.

There are some very cutting critiques of the art world. A brutal murder scene is mistaken for some kind of performance/installation art piece. John Malkovich plays a famous artist who made better work when he was an alcoholic. The harshest critique is reserved for art world people who are portrayed as unprincipled, cruel, and motivated by profit and power. Only the art critic seems to have a conscience buried beneath his neurosis and pretensions.

Unfortunately, these horrible characters undermine the tension and empathy should an audience should feel as the menace grows. We don’t really care if these people die, since they’re not redeemable. Ultimately, Velvet Buzzsaw is more a horror movie set in the art world, than a dissection of the power of image.