‘The Most Beautiful Boy in the World’: Film Review

Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri’s documentary recounts the story of Björn Andrésen, who shot to fame as a teenager thanks to his appearance in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film ‘Death in Venice.’

Lest you think the title of this documentary is hyperbole, rest assured that the moniker “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” was indeed once applied to the film’s subject. He’s Björn Andrésen, who at the tender age of 15 was selected by legendary Italian film director Luchino Visconti to play the adolescent object of Dirk Bogarde’s obsession in the 1971 film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. After making a worldwide splash in his first significant film role, Andrésen has spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity. Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri’s fascinating, if diffuse, documentary fills in that considerable blank in his public profile while making clear the lingering emotional impact of Andrésen’s brush with fame.

Those who remember Andrésen as the impossibly gorgeous, curly-haired Pre-Raphaelite figure in Visconti’s classic will be in for a shock when they first encounter him again. Now in his mid-60s (the film was shot over a period of five years), he’s gaunt and wizened, smoking incessantly and sporting an unkempt Gandalf-like white beard. He’s in danger of being evicted from his run-down apartment because of his filthy living conditions and dangerous habit of accidentally leaving his gas burner on. “My home’s an environmental hazard,” he admits to his long-suffering girlfriend.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

The Bottom Line

A haunting portrait of the price of fame.

Release date: Friday, Sept. 24

Directors: Kristina Lindstrom, Kristian Petri

1 hour 34 minutes

Flashbacks detail Visconti’s international search for the perfect teenage boy to play the crucial role of Tadzio in his film. When he encountered Andrésen in Sweden, he instantly knew that he had found his “bull’s-eye,” as he puts it. The documentary includes footage of Andrésen’s audition, during which he looks profoundly uncomfortable when Visconti asks him to bare his torso.

As anyone who’s seen Death in Venice knows, the unknown Andrésen made an indelible impression in the film; the camera clearly adored him. Visconti ordered that no one on his largely gay crew should so much as look at the young actor, and his direction of Andrésen essentially consisted of four commands: go, stop, turn around, and smile. During a press conference at the film’s premiere, the director jokingly comments that his young star is already on the verge of losing his looks.

Although he enjoyed the experience of working abroad, Andrésen was ambivalent about acting. He was prodded to audition for roles by his ambitious grandmother, who was delighted when Visconti rewarded her with a small role in the film.

The behind-the-scenes footage of Death in Venice proves the most fascinating segment of the documentary, which delivers an impressionistic portrait of Andrésen’s life in subsequent years. For a brief while, he was able to parlay his fame, becoming a teen singing idol in Japan and inspiring a generation of manga artists; he was the model for the Lady Oscar character in the long-running series The Rose of Versailles. He also spent time in Paris, receiving “pocket money,” as he puts it, from older men who desired his company. His most notable film appearance since his breakout role was a small part in Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar, in which his character met a particularly gruesome end.

Andrésen’s emotional state throughout the years has been fragile at best. “Everything went well in terms of my career,” he says. “But it didn’t help me with my inner darkness.” The filmmakers tease out dramatic revelations throughout the film, such as the fact that his mother disappeared when he was a small boy, later to be found dead in a remote wooded area. We see Andrésen tearfully reading a police report about the event, but no further details are provided. His most profound tragedy was the loss of his infant son; the official cause of death was sudden infant death syndrome, but Andrésen, who was sleeping in bed next to the baby when it occurred, blames himself. Afterward, he lapsed into a lengthy period of depression and alcoholism, of which he doesn’t seem to have fully emerged.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World provides a haunting portrait of the corrosive effects of fame, especially of the sexualized variety, at an early age. But there are times when the film feels exploitative of its subject in its own right, especially when it eavesdrops on such intensely personal episodes as a phone conversation in which his girlfriend angrily lashes out at him. As we watch the still-striking Andrésen stare off into the distance when he revisits the Venice locations where he worked as a child, it’s obvious that he’s posing for the camera, and we become uncomfortably reminded of our own complicity in toxic celebrity culture.

Full credits

Distributor: Juno Films
Production company: Mantaray Films
Directors: Kristina Lindstrom, Kristian Petri
Producer: Stina Gardell
Director of photography: Erik Vallsten
Editors: Hanna Lejonquvist, Dino Jonsater
Composers: Anna Von Hausswolff, Filip, Leyman

1 hour 34 minutes