Is there anything more ripe for the cinematic Venn diagram of horror, comedy, and camp than the world of high-end contemporary art? (Aside from child beauty pageants, maybe, or current American politics.)
In Velvet Buzzsaw, writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler star Jake Gyllenhaal for a sort of gleeful sendup of classic slasher flicks, gilded in all the modern follies of the navel-gazing coastal elite; it’s like Bret Easton Ellis meeting John Carpenter in the bathroom at Art Basel (and spoiler: only one of them comes out alive).
The movie actually opens at Basel, that annual ritual of air-kissing and art-buying in Miami Beach. Moving through the room in one Brian de Palma-style sweep, Gilroy introduces nearly all the main characters: Gyllenhaal’s imperious critic Morf Vandewalt (be prepared for many more amazing names); L.A. power gallerist Rhodora Haze (Gilroy’s real-life wife Rene Russo); her oily young competitor Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge); ambitious assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton); art handler Bryson (Billy Magnusson); and museum executive Gretchen (Toni Collette), a barracuda in an angular blonde bob. Then there’s Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs), two art stars on opposing ends of the fame bell curve.
As they bicker and flatter and scheme, the dynamics between them begin to crystallize: these preening Sprockets with their architectural hairdos, fantastic shoes, and desperate need to affirm their place in the ruthless, rickety Jenga tower of art-world supremacy.
So far, so Instagram-era Less Than Zero. But when an elderly shut-in neighbor of Josephina’s dies, leaving a pack-rat apartment full of disturbing and strangely compelling paintings, the Carpenter begins to kick in. Who was this man, with his history of horrific abuse and criminal insanity, and also his genius sense of color? Clients and critics go crazy for the work, and then they start to die for it — literally.
Gilroy has a lot to say about money, mindless consumerism, and the soul-sucking emptiness of conflating ownership and ego-stroking with self-worth. It’s also stuff that’s been said a thousand times before, of course, and as the film goes on to become a sort of haute Final Destination, knocking off cast members with increasing ingenuity, that message stays static.
For a lot of its runtime, Velvet (which premiered last night at Sundance, and lands on Netflix Feb. 1) is fun and silly and enjoyably outrageous. It’s hard, though, to walk away with a real sense of anything more than blood on the canvas and a blank where your feelings — beyond mild bemusement, and a sudden appetite for prime Los Angeles real estate — should be. B