NPR pop culture critic Glen Weldon reviewed “Velvet Buzzsaw,” a comedy-horror recently released on Netflix. Read Weldon’s take below.
“Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining.” — Morf
Say this much about L.A. art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) — he’s right about the act of criticism. It’s reductive by nature, and it can take a psychic toll on the critic, who, if they’re any damn good at all, worries that their zeal for identifying the essence of a work may prove inadequate, if not flat-out wrong.
The critic, for example, who sets out to critique the pleasantly bananapants Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, in which Morf (look, the character’s name is Morf, get over it) intones the above opinion, must take care not to leave readers with the wrong impression. The film attempts to be many things at once; each of those attempts must be addressed, in turn.
So here goes:
Velvet Buzzsaw follows the general, well-worn contours of supernatural horror, replete with:
1. Those Who Transgress And Must Thus Learn Deadly Lessons;
2. A Sinister Force That Metes Out Said Lessons;
3. A Set Of Creepy Escalating Circumstances That Cause Characters Who Should Really Just Start Freaking The Hell Out And Stop Doing The Bad Thing They’re Doing (Which Would End The Film Early, Admittedly) To Instead Idly Observe, “It’s The Damndest Thing,” Like They’re All Sitting Around At High Tea In Big Floppy Hats And Have Just Been Served Some Frickin’ Cucumber Sandwiches When They Were Expecting Watercress;
4. At Least One (1) Jump Scare Involving A Cat; and
5. Some Blood, But Not Too Much, Because You See It’s More About The Psychological Horror, Get It?
“It’s a bit baroque, don’t you think?” — Rhodora
Velvet Buzzsaw is also an arch comedy. A very good one, in point of fact, filled with dialogue and performances so gleefully mannered they make this quirky little concoction one of the more quotable — and, not for nothing, gif-able — films in recent memory.
“It’s called ‘Sphere’,” breathes Rene Russo’s imperious gallery owner Rhodora (the names in this flick, you guys), explaining one particular installation — a silver sphere adorned with holes that visitors are encouraged to stick their hands in. “It creates this … unique sensation, depending upon the person … and whichever hole they decide to explore.” A beat, a minuscule one, then, “Just like life.”
(No, you’re absolutely right, you don’t need that kicker … but you’re still happy it showed up.)
You’ve got Gyllenhaal having a ball, playing a variation on the feckless, effete intellectual he’s played several times before, most recently in last year’s The Sisters Brothers. It’s a mode he seems to relish, and here, under the eye of writer-director Dan Gilroy, with whom he first teamed in Nightcrawler, he gets a chance to go bigger and bigger as the film progresses — slathering some spicy mustard atop all that relish. Maybe not the ghost-pepper Scoville units that a Nicolas Cage, say, would bring to the table, but a coarse, intensely vinegary Dijon.
“This is my life,” Morf pontificates to Toni Collette’s scheming museum curator Gretchen, “How I connect with some sort of spirituality and the actual present. I assess out of adoration! I further the realm I analyze!”
An aside: Any critic who tells you they “further the realm [they] analyze” deserves everything Morf gets here. (They may believe it — many do — but if they ever say it aloud in your vicinity, find the nearest exit and get as far away from the building as possible.)
“Don’t you know? All art is dangerous.” — Gretchen
Finally, Velvet Buzzsaw is a satire of the world of art collection, and it sets out to map the crossroads where high art meets commerce. It throws many things at the wall in this yeomanlike attempt, including but not limited to John Malkovich as a fading, embittered genius, Daveed Diggs as a promising newcomer and Tom Sturridge as an oleaginous gallery owner given to terrible shirts.
The overriding conceit of the film — the thing that fuses its horror and comedic elements, albeit a bit too neatly — finds a young, striving gallery employee named Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovering a cache of disturbing but hauntingly (heh) beautiful work from a recently deceased and unknown artist. The art becomes a sensation; soon people around it start dying in odd ways. It may not surprise you to learn these two facts are related.
The film has some fun with its big, broad, art-as-murder metaphor — Collette’s Gretchen is disarmingly vicious as she cynically wheels and deals to promote her client’s work (“So move Banyo’s horse penis! Or the jeweled vagina! Put one inside the other for all I care!”), and Russo gets to savor languorous sips of champagne on a pretty balcony and say things like, “All this? Is just a safari to hunt the next new thing and eat it.”
But if you’re looking for a truly insightful and unflinching critique of the way artists and wealthy patrons and museums feed off one other, you’d be better served with last year’s The Square, from Sweden. That film’s satire was merciless and grimly hilarious, this one’s much less pointed. Velvet Buzzsaw is The Square with the hard edges sanded down. Beveled. More of a squircle really.
“I do a lot of Pilates and Peloton.” — Morf
Velvet Buzzsaw‘s sense of humor, and the fact that Gyllenhaal plays a gender-fluid character, will likely lead some to dub it “campy”; it’s not, particularly.
It’s arch, yes. Mannered, to be sure. But the film’s sensibility is too normative, in the way many horror films tend to be — greedy characters get punished; virtuous characters get rewarded — to evince much of a truly transgressive, outsider, queer vibe.
If, for example, it gave Gyllenhaal as many shirtless scenes as it does, without acknowledging how ridiculously jacked his character — an art critic! — just happened to be, that would be silly. That would be camp.
Instead, the film is careful to carve out a scene in which one character comments on Morf’s … morphology, allowing him to explain his workout routine. It follows this up with another scene showing him leaving a workout in a clingy white tank top.
Which only makes sense. Horror needs clearly defined rules to work; Velvet Buzzsaw knows this. It knows audiences will only too happily believe that creepy oil paintings can eat people. But what they won’t believe, what defies logic, what flies in the face of all laws of God and Science, is that a critic could get that shredded.
Velvet Buzzsaw premieres on Netflix Friday, February 1st.