“What is the point of art if nobody sees it?”
This question asked by one of the characters in Velvet Buzzsaw is uttered with marked smugness. It is not an artist who makes this pronouncement. In fact, for a film that is so deeply ensconced in the heady world of art and fiercely competitive gallery owners fighting over artists and space, the artists are mostly present as mentions. Diffident, meek and fragile, they seem terrified of perhaps having lost what it takes to remain relevant anymore.
In Dan Gilroy’s Netflix film, the director sides with these unassertive souls. He places his faith and sympathy firmly on them. They are the unsuspecting protagonists of his film and their consent to exhibit their creation or not seems to be of paramount importance to him.
The pristine art world in Los Angeles gets visibly rattled when paintings of a deceased artist Ventril Dease are discovered by a would-be art dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton). The angst and the suppressed rage in his work impress the stuck-up, hard to please art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). “I’m ensorcelled,” he says, taken in by what he sees before him. Gallery owners fawn over them and soon, over lies, deceit, artifice and treachery, they present Dease’s work to the world, all the while deftly ignoring the artist’s wish: to destroy them after his death. What follows is a series of deaths, some out of vengeance, others out of caution to ensure that the artist’s wishes are respected.
Peppered with humour and deaths, almost in equal measure, Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw resists fitting into a particular genre. Velvet Buzzsaw is as bizarre as profound. And the film works excellently as a parody of the (art) world it is situated in. It refuses to take itself seriously, and the inspiring performances of the actors lend the much-needed irreverence to the film. Rene Russo is excellent as Rhodora Haza, a gallery owner who has been in the business for far too long. Her expressions are so carefully curated that one can mistake them with the installations she presents at her gallery. And yet, one of the most affecting moments in the film occurs when Russo’s steely gaze falters, when her practised tone breaks into a hush. She is ably aided by Ashton and Toni Collette’s inspiring performances. However, it is Gyllenhaal, as the bisexual art critic, who owns the film with his performance. He is vain and fragile, pompous and broken, too pleased with his own opinions than the things he is opining about. Gyllenhaal performance is so enthralling that when he momentarily slouches, just after declaring that he is doing a lot of Pilates, you are willing to overlook the incongruency.
Dan Gilroy does a fine job in exposing the facile loyalties of the art world, the inability of those in authority to distinguish art from trash and in asserting that art remains relevant, whether seen or not. He reserves his respect only for the artist, and nothing or nobody else matters. Not even the art. Gilroy channels the rage of an enraged artist against this pretentious lot as deaths occur, too many times and too frequently. But his stinging attack is at its damnedest when a defiant gallery owner lies dead in a pool of blood after her hand is sucked in by an installation and is mistook for art itself hours after her death. Children dip their shoes in it and walk about until a girl, a supposed outsider denied permission to enter this world, recognises and howls in horror.
“All art is dangerous,” Russo says, as she reasons the many deaths that occurred after not paying heed to Dease’s wish. Gilroy shows it is the artist who must be revered and feared if disgruntled. Hell, it seems, has no fury like an artist scorned.