The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

Directors: Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri

Writers: Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri

Cast: Björn Andrésen

Producer: Stina Gardell

Music: Filip Leyman, Anna Von Hausswolf

Cinematographer: Erik Vallsten

Editor: Dino Jonsäter, Hanna Lejonqvist

Cert: 15

Running time: 93mins

Year: 2021

What’s the story: A documentary exploring Björn Andrésen, whose appearance in the 1971 film Death in Venice led to an instant global fame that cast a long shadow over his life.

What’s the verdict: Björn Andrésen will be best known to modern cinemagoers as the OAP who takes a painful cliff dive in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Few would connect that gaunt, Gandalfian figure with the strikingly beautiful angelic youth in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Palme D’or nominee, Death in Venice. Indeed, Visconti’s declaration of the actor as “the most beautiful boy in the world” was a curse.

Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s compelling documentary explores how Andrésen became this unrecognisable, haunted figure, now caught between a world-weary smile and remorseful tears. A large portion of blame is assigned to Visconti and his movie, which cast the 15-year-old Andrésen as Tadzio, an object of obsession for Dirk Bogarde’s lead character.

Archive interview footage depicts the openly gay Visconti stating his movie is a story of idealised beauty, not one of sexuality or eroticism. But, to modern eyes there is an unease in watching Andrésen’s audition footage, which comprised of having the shy half-naked boy strike a series of poses.

The film and Andrésen do not accuse Visconti or the largely homosexual crew of any physical abuse. What becomes clear is how the movie-making machine took a child ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom and objectified them when they were psychologically most vulnerable.

Visconti is described as locking Andrésen into a three year contract to preserve the image of his “most beautiful boy in the world,” and the actor would not appear in another film until 1977. A biting moment at a Cannes press junket has Visconti bemoaning how the now-16-year-old had lost his beauty to old age. Journalists bellow with laughter while an uncomprehending Andrésen looks on.  

With Death in Venice a success the world over, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World explores how Andrésen became the inspiration for Japanese manga artists. His fragile appearance embodied the Japanese concept of bishonen (“beautiful youth”), and his likeness would inspire androgynous heroes and heroines of shōjo manga (“girl’s comics”) for an entire generation. In Japan, the actor was put on a relentless carousel of appearances, recording sessions, commercial and photo shoots. Fuelled by amphetamines.

Not all the blame is laid at Visconti’s door. A family tragedy in Andrésen’s youth left him traumatised. An ambitious grandmother pushed the boy into any spotlight she could find. Plus, the actor himself recounts how he ultimately embraced the excesses of stardom. Leading, in his eyes, to a second family tragedy. First seen living in filth in a modest flat, Andrésen is also depicted as selfish in his depression. Patient girlfriend Jessica lambasts him for his self-centered behaviour on a return trip to Japan. Daughter Robine describes how he was absent from most of her childhood.  

Lindström and Petri confidently unfold the various chapters of their subject’s story, creating a complex portrait of a troubled life. Aiding them is a treasure trove of archive material. 8mm footage (seemingly everyone in Andrésen’s life had access to a cine camera), behind-the-scenes outtakes, press interviews, commercials and clips from Death in Venice itself all capture the young boy who briefly obsessed the world. Sensitively shot present-day interviews explore the man he became.

It would be comforting to regard The Most Beautiful Boy in the World as a record of a different time. But, Andrésen can be seen as the spiritual grandfather of countless child actors who were, and still are, given everything… except a roadmap of how to navigate the pitfalls of stardom.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Movie Robcast

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World – released in cinemas 30th July 

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