Television Review: Art Lives on But Dealers Die in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

By David D’Arcy 

Jake Gyllenhaal and company will survive this broad satiric lark, as will the art world.

Jake Gyllenhaal as a jargon-spewing critic in “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

In the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, the comedy/horror film set in the art world of Miami and Los Angeles, the discovery of a trove of unknown work after the death of a reclusive janitor generates a war about whether or not to take that art to galleries and auctions. When dealers learn that the market-phobic artist had also ibeen nstitutionalized for mental illness, the trade considers him all the more sellable. Long live cynicism.

Fashion is fierce and the comic strokes are cartoonish and cruel as Velvet Buzzsaw stabs at the art business, lampooning it as a place infested by ruthless trend-mongers. The film pivots when the outsider artist’s  creations come to life to protect themselves from exploitation. Lots of dealers end up dead in lots of ways.

An art revenge comedy? Velvet Buzzsaw premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, with a cast that features Jake Gyllenhaal as a jargon-spewing critic and Renee Russo as an opportunistic veteran dealer. Zawe Ashton is her careerist young protegee, and John Malkovitch is cast as an aging has-been salesman, oozing with bile toward those who can sell new work. “So, I’m copying myself?” he asks. “No, you’re the canon,” a soothsayer whispers.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, 2014) struck the same moral tone as his film when, after the Sundance premiere, he told the audience that “a horror/thriller in the art world …became a vehicle for things that are important to me — the idea that art is more than a commodity, and that artists invest their soul and their spirit in their work. I think that’s something that’s getting lost a little bit these days.”

Isn’t this the standard critique of art market excess? By the way, Gilroy’s film is reported to have cost $21 million, the price of two middling paintings by Gerhard Richter.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s themes of guilt-less corruption and the servile pursuit of what’s ‘hot’ were probed more efficently by Ruben Ostlund in The Square (Cannes Palme d’Or, 2017). A more remote influence (though well known to film geeks ) is A Bucket of Blood, Roger Corman’s no-budget now-classic 1959 send-up of  beatnik culture and modern art. A busboy becomes celebrated as a sculptor when he accidentally kills a cat and covers it in plaster — his ‘Dead Cat’ creation is hailed as brilliant. When demand for his ‘sculptures’ explodes, the guy has no choice but to produce more. corpses. (Take a look, when you get a chance, at this clever put-down; satirizing art was alive and well sixty years ago.)

Other borrowings include themes from the life of the janitor and prolific recluse Henry Darger. Prices for the work that Darger never sold are stratospheric today. We also see plenty of images that could be called ‘School of Francis Bacon,’ although Gilroy hired a designer to fabricate dozens of works  of contemporary art. Their fate in the market will no doubt depend on how well Velvet Buzzsaw does with audiences. Art world insiders (if they deign to watch Velvet Buzzsaw) will no doubt greet the film with a yawn. They would be right — this is pretty familiar stuff. But in a way that response is too easy. Sometimes ridicule has to be obvious if it is going to be noticed.

Viewers will be drawn to the steely Russo and the muttering Malkovitch, but Gyllenhaal is the main attraction as a visual art reviewer whose eye-glasses and gait are homages to real-life art insider Jeffrey Deitch. The critic reassures the victim of a bad review that he is fortunate — it is better than ending up “in the glut of anonymity.” Zawe Ashton is the surprise here, playing  a young, inexperienced dealer who finds the abandoned work of the deceased outsider and finds herself the target of art world venom when she tries to cash in on it. It’s as if she’s saying to her peers – “I’m playing by the rules that I’ve seen, and now I’m the victim?”

With plenty of icily grand gallery spaces, outrageous designer clothes bordering on fashion victim-hood, and a tall Starbucks the drink of choice for those who gossip (which is everyone), Netflix is testing the mass appeal of art-driven content. (Velvet Buzzsaw‘s trailer has gotten at least 3.2 million looks so far, says the company.)

Netflix took a similar risk (in a way) and it paid off with Roma: Alfonso Cuaron’s black and white film is in Spanish and parades its art photography aesthetic in every frame. Velvet Buzzsaw slides down-market instead, proffering the aesthetic of an Audi commercial: the look of luxury is available to any social climber who can pay for it.  The masses could care less about death-by-pretension, but they may enjoy hating the film’s snobbish villains. Gyllenhaal and company will survive this broad satiric lark, as will the art world.

David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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