Spoiler alert! If you have not watched Netflix’s film Velvet Buzzsaw, then this might give away a good chunk of the plot. Nevertheless, this satirical thriller set within the Los Angeles art scene is worth a watch – even if it is just to play the game of who is going to predictably die next!
The film opens at Art Basel, the notorious Miami art fair, with Jake Gyllenhall sauntering past queues of people with dark shades and a cheeky smirk on his face. This presents our first clichéd character, Morf Vandewalt, the art critic. Even within Netflix’s own description, they lay out the stereotypes they are mimicking: 'a feared critic, an icy gallery owner and an ambitious assistant'. Vandewalt is presented throughout the film as the typecast of a successful writer, whom so candidly claims 'critique is so limiting and emotionally draining'. Perhaps this is playing on the idea of what well respected and accomplished critics are like, or perhaps this comment is just a reflection of how difficult it is to make it in the exclusive art world. Even one of the first works that Vandewalt critiques, a robotic installation called Hoboman, is called an iteration of another work from four years ago. The problem of replication within the art world is also a recurring issue, with Damien Hurst finally coming out last year to confess that 'all my ideas are stolen anyway'. Although it is extremely difficult to create something completely original in an age where so much has already been done, there should still be at least some level of respect towards other artists in order to not completely copy their ideas.
Another cliché that is presented within the film is the classic myth of the tortured artist; Piers, the character that embodies this stereotype, does not get much air time in the film. Since turning to sobriety, his work no longer sells. The prompts the question as to whether art needs to be produced from a place of tension and struggle or whether you can just create art for art’s sake. Renowned artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso have all been claimed to have been alcoholics and even the ‘ambitious assistant’ Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, claims 'I am done dating artists. They are already in a relationship'. Consumed in their own world of art, the film toys with the idea of the artist as a tortured soul, yet I am unconvinced that this is the secret ingredient in making a masterpiece.
The main premise of the film centres around a collection of paintings created by an unknown artist named Ventril Dease, who just happens to be found dead by Josephina on her return to LA. It is later revealed that the artist who died wanted everything in his possession thrown away after his passing, yet by defying his wish, Josephina found herself a goldmine that would come back to blow her up later down the line. After unashamedly claiming she found them in a dumpster, Josephina begins to sell these works within the established art scene. Throughout the film you see each character seek to selfishly build on their own career by jumping on the bandwagon. However, as soon anyone starts to profit off the works, they all start to die in various ways centred around the paintings. The film is basically saying that if you steal someone else’s work, you will die – perhaps not literally, but if that is not a sign to stop profiting from art that does not belong to you, then I do not know what else is!
One of the funniest parts of this ironically comical film was the scene were the innocent intern Coco discovered her boss and gallery owner Toni Collette lying in a pool of her own blood around a large mirrored sculpture titled Sphere. This work allowed visitors to interact with it by sticking their arm in holes where they could feel different reactions. Unfortunately for Collette, who had been involved in selling Dease’s stolen work, the Sphere ended up getting stuck whilst her arm was still inside and leaving her to bleed to death. The worst part was that the next day when the gallery opened, no one from the public seemed to bat an eyelid. Kids were even mindlessly running around in the blood and traipsing it all over the gallery floor. This reminded me of the time someone tweeted about the dropped glove in the MoMA and everyone started nervously stepping around it, unsure if it was part of the collection. I guess anything can be contemporary art if you try hard enough!
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor