A Frustrating Horror-Satire That Is Neither Here Nor There
The recent original film by Netflix, ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, is a bland, self-aggrandizing mess that is not only unsatisfying in every aesthetic sense that it can be, but is unapologetically so. It is most definitely not the first time that director Dan Gilroy decided to experiment building up a whole film on one particular idea. Even though he employed a similar technique in his previously made ‘Nightcrawler’, there, Gilroy played it safe by cutting back at the storytelling and concentrated mostly on a challenging and captivating character.
On the contrary and very much to the disappointment of Netflix’s loyal audience, ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ oscillates between what can be called horror for camp nights and a badly put satire, and in trying to fit in these two genres, it loses its balance and vision. It is lacking in it a well-built centre, as the plot shifts simply in between characters, moving from one to the main and again to another, losing track of Gilroy’s not-too-fresh idea. Hence, it was not much of a surprise when ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ landed up as something that is not even close to the original and novel. It is a dull and dreary film, even with all the compelling acting talent that it stars.
The Premise: Would You Die for Art?
Gilroy’s film sets off in motion when Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a leading art critic, attends an art exhibition at the art gallery of Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Vandewalt’s friend, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who is an employee for Haze, is at the verge of losing her boss’s favour owing to her tumultuous love life, that is distressing her life at work.
Josephina’s fate seems to have taken a turn for the good when she chances upon a collection of mesmerizing work of art right after the death of an artist, Vetril Dease, who was otherwise unknown and lived in Josephina’s building. Dease’s paintings take the art world by storm leaving Haze, Josephina and Vandewalt giddy and ecstatic at the thought of having discovered some hidden treasure.
At this point in the film, strange things start to happen. Anyone who had ever profited or dealt with Dease’s paintings personally begin to die under bizarre circumstances. With people associated with the paintings of Dease dying one after the other, Josephina starts contemplating if she should have fulfilled the final request of Dease and destroyed every artwork he ever created.
A Confusing Take On The Moral Void Of Art Commodification
At one point in the film, Haze provides an interesting insight into the modern world of art, “We don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception –thin as a bubble.” Gilroy’s film is all about art and how it is commodified in an era that is strictly capitalist in essence. However, Gilroy does not step back from infusing moral undertones in between the layers dealing with art commodification.
Dease’s reputation as an artist is established by Vandewalt, while Haze deals with the marketing of his artwork, and in no time every person who has ever profited from the paintings of Dease ends up at the gory end of the film. However, that’s pretty much all of what the film has to say. With ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, although Gilroy aims at commenting and putting a satirical remark on the modern scene in the world of art, he does not have much to offer other than just calling out critics on their pretentiousness and condemning the incessant commodification that goes on in the modern world of art.
All the major characters in the film are essentially soulless. They see people in the manner they perceive art –as nothing but commodities. The atmosphere of Gilroy’s film is steeped in a sterile vacuum of artificially constructed attractiveness. It is either that they inherently miss a soul or that they have chosen, quite conveniently for themselves, to be oblivious to it. Gilroy has made a choice of painting his characters in a manner such that they lack multiple dimensions to them and appear as created in just one shade.
Dease’s art acts as the scrape that opens up front the rot that lies underneath. When things begin to fall apart, everyone except Vandewalt chooses to turn a blind eye to the auguries. However, the events are sequenced in such an aimless and insignificant fashion, fused in with the bland script that the film makes a joke out of Gilroy’s bigger vision.
Aimless, Half-Hearted and Unsteady
Amidst the half-hearted endeavour to comment on commercialization of art, Gilroy’s story introduces characters only to dispose them off with little or no explanation at all, as to whether they deserve their destiny or not. The character of Piers (John Malkovich) was a potential character that could have been utilized in many ways, but the story chooses to abandon it without offering any closure. All we know of Piers is that he had been at the epitome of his career as a painter and is currently undergoing an artist’s block. However, despite his career being at the stand by, he is awestruck by the art of Dease from the moment he lays his eyes on them.
Perhaps here, Gilroy intends to pull at the thread where an artist suffering from a creative crisis is humbled by the work of another artist. Right after, Piers is disposed off as a character and we only see him at the closing credits. Such abandonment of a potential sub-plot right after it was introduced owing to too many characters is in accordance with the general confusion that pervades throughout the film.
The audience is presented with a few fashionably executed deaths here and there, almost as if to just deliver an underwhelming and bland thrill, contrary to what the premise promises. The film appears to be all about artwork, with the dead acting like a few insignificant props. Gilroy employs silly tricks of presenting horror through shocks and surprises that are so mainstream that they have lost any element of blow in them. The events of the film only add force to the problem that is fundamental to ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’– adding itself to what it had determined to satirize and in the process collapsing into nothing.
Too Many Questions, Too Little Answers
‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ cannot be labelled as a bad film out and right, but it is not an unforgettable one. There is not much one can hope to see beyond all that has already been given away by the trailer. The concept might be a little lost, but it could make for a decent distraction, especially if one is wasting hours looking for something to watch on Netflix.
There is one instance that is to some extent aesthetically pleasing and does not come forward until the end of the film. The closing credits portray Piers, for the last time, after a long break within the screen hours, creating an art piece on the beach, that is fated to disappear. Despite the fate of his art, Piers seems to enjoy the process of his creation. Nevertheless, this message is not made prominent organically within the story. It lies pushed in the corner by all the confusion that the film has going.
Unfortunately, despite a few promising materials, ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ offers nothing and only poses questions, to which the audience receives no answer. The sinister back-story of Dease remains unexplored under the horror stereotypes of murder, insane asylums and medical experiments. Questions like what made Dease create his paintings; what they might have signified for him and for the world; why he had stored them; and why he had attempted, even though it was too late, to obliterate them –are never even initiated, let alone answered.
Film critic, Pauline Kael had once retorted, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” In the context of ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, Gilroy comes nowhere close to creating “great art”, but he sure does deliver “great trash.”