Jake Gyllenhaal is Ensorcelled in Velvet Buzzsaw

Outsider Art meets Horror in very funny Netflix art-world satire

Velvet Buzzsaw, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claudette Barius.

On the heels of the HBO’s art-world documentary The Price of Everything, with its real-life cast of billionaire art collectors, mega-star artists, and attendant collection of gallerists, dealers and critics, comes the Velvet Buzzsaw, a new Netflix feature that blends well-observed satire of the art world with, of all things, well-worn conventions of horror film.

Velvet Buzzsaw has it all: insufferable art critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), museum curator-cum-private art advisor (Toni Collette), unstoppable ex-punk girl gallerist (Rene Russo), famous abstract painter treading old fame (John Malkovich), plus not one but two beautiful and conniving gallery girls, hunky frustrated art handler, rival Italian gallerist in sockless loafers, gangster-ish head of urban art collective, and many more.  And of course the true artistic genius, who just happens to be a dead janitor, formerly a patient of a hospital for the criminally insane, whose art is illuminated by his personal demons in in a way that makes it an immediate sensation-slash-investment vehicle. Also in a way that will, you know, actually kill people, as befitting a campy horror genre conventions that Velvet Buzzsaw ultimately settles in.

All – or most, but which ones? – of the art world menagerie that has been introduced with such a spot-on touch in the first part of the movie will get killed off one by one in various and increasingly grisly ways.  As they undoubtedly deserve, if for no other reason than their haircuts.

The director Dan Gilroy, who has previously tackled the world of fast-news journalism in Nightcrawler, a 2014 sleeper hit thriller also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, explained to Entertainment Weekly that his aspirations for Velvet Buzzsaw were loftier than just campy art-world horror:  “I’m saying in Velvet Buzzsaw that art is more than a commodity and let’s not forget it.”

While that may well be true, his Netflix movie hardly makes a case for it. What is does much better is entertain, or at least entertain the kind of people who know what “ensorcelled” means – or those of us who care enough to look it up – after they have stopped laughing at Jake Gyllenhaal’s hilarious impersonation of an art critic with a ready repertoire of SAT words, which he dispenses at a high-clip throughout the movie. In fact, in spite of being released just this weekend, the Velvet Buzzsaw has already become a popular repository of art-world jokes and a source of internet memes.  It has even been said (on the Internets) that it has inspired memes “so good they belong in an art gallery”.   At press time, the I-am-ensorcelled meme is still forthcoming, but likely inevitable.

Ognjen Simic

Ognjen Simic is a research psychologist and a lover of arts and sciences from Croatia, based for the last two decades in Williamsburg, NY, where he reports on the cultural landscape.

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