Valerie Pavilonis

“Velvet Buzzsaw” takes its viewer into an aesthetically framed critique of the modern art world with a number of anticipatory moments that never lead to a climax. It’s a failed amalgam of genres: not enough humor to be a comedy, not enough blood to be a horror, not enough suspense to be a thriller, and not enough character development to be a romance. For the first 30 minutes, it seems the only horror is a messed-up relationship between two of the leads, with an unclear amount of cheating, and a creepy robot named “Hoboman” whose presence in the opening art show seems to mock the exclusive, high art world’s obsession with representing and marketing poverty, but the critique is not deep enough and even allows the movie to do the exact thing it is critiquing.

The plot revolves around a series of paintings found in a dead man’s apartment that entice the art world and lead each character to destruction: possessing a painting seems to lead to hearing voices, seeing things, and even dying. Plot is too strong of a word, however, because the story runs more like a series of strings that never get tied up. If this movie is simply attempting to be a slasher film built around aesthetic shots of blood and guts, it takes far too long for anyone to die. On that note, a few of the deaths were entertainingly bloody in an artfully humorous way, but a few were kind of boring — after a whole movie, I don’t want to see a lead character killed off in a throw away neck-breaking by an almost-forgotten character.

Since it doesn’t quite reach the gore threshold for slasher film, I would have appreciated some explanation for the few creepy a-ha moments. This film builds up suspense with a series of unrelated revelations, but never pays out. Sure, painting with human blood is pretty nasty, and the scene in which the giant metal sculpture that provides “pleasure” when you stick your hand into one of its holes develops a sadistic mind of its own was probably my favorite scene in the film, its crowning moment of Monty Python-esque carnage. But each character is killed in a different way, and, while I appreciate creativity, if you are waiting for some explanation as to why these paintings are cursed, or how they are killing people, you’re going to be waiting forever.

If viewed as an art film, the movie has its merits. The shots are gorgeous: framing characters in soft colored light, reflecting a hairless cat in the crisp blue water of a koi pond, even mimicking a tableau from one of the dastardly paintings and then cutting to a satisfyingly minimalist portrait of an expensive LA home, a cool embrace following a grotesque and somewhat nonsensical death. The film’s echoing hollowness harkens to the loneliness of the characters’ lives, and the cold way in  which art is often treated in our modern society. The paintings that cause so many deaths appeal to their audience because they are muddled portraits of pain and suffering, layered images of emotion that provoke a response in a world in which so little feeling actually gets through. At least, that’s what Jake Gyllenhaal’s art critic character would say. For me, the film was both too overt about its cultural critique and too obtuse about what was actually going on.

Carrie Maninno | carrie.man@yale.edu .