The Most Beautiful Boy In The World ****
Directors: Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri
In 1971, iconic Italian director Luchino Visconti released his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s famous novel Death In Venice, starring Dirk Bogarde as a composer staying in Venice in the early twentieth century. There he meets Tadzio, a fourteen year-old Polish boy with whom he becomes enamoured and while a cholera epidemic afflicts the inhabitants of the island, all he can focus on is this beautiful boy whom he continues to pursue around the city. For many years, Visconti hunted across Europe to find the perfect boy to play the role of Tadzio, until he arrived in Sweden and found Björn Johan Andrésen, aged just fifteen. The director would later describe his find as “the most beautiful boy in the world” and this documentary charts what happened next.
We meet Andrésen now in his sixties, living in squalor in a Stockholm apartment, five decades on from his brief period in the limelight. And though his star burned fast, it burned much brighter than I – certainly – had any notion of. With enduring fame in Japan, he released several pop songs and became the enduring inspiration for now iconic manga characters, with the mass hysteria surrounding his name there compared with that of The Beatles. His most recent credit was horror movie Midsommar, but in the years between then and now, his face faded into relative obscurity.
The crux of this fascinating documentary focuses around the events surrounding – and immediately following – the film that catapulted him to stardom. Though Andrésen is himself heterosexual, the titular label assigned to him weighed heavily on his shoulders, with the world assuming that he was gay. Of course the elephant in the room is that a movie like Death In Venice would never be made today, with its subject-matter both contentious and uncomfortable. And Visconti’s treatment of Andrésen is discussed in uncertain terms, the nature of which is inexplicitly called into question. With the documentary beginning with Andrésen’s original casting video, the young actor is visibly uncomfortable as Visconti asks him to undress for him.
Today, Andrésen is a damaged man, which is self-evident from the opening credits. Of course not all of this stems from his rise to fame – the disappearance of his mother and death of his son are certainly contributors too – but as we watch him describe to his girlfriend the way his grandmother sat back and allowed Visconti and his entourage to fawn over his teenage good-looks, we can see with perfect retrospective clarity just how problematic it was. Uncomfortably visiting gay bars, he was cast as a sex-object aged just fifteen. And living in Paris in the years after, he was given pocket money by rich male socialites just to attend their parties, carted around like a trophy.
With Bogarde’s character never actually speaking to Tadzio in the film, Death In Venice never actually crosses the line it nudges uncomfortably against. Similarly, there are no accusations that Visconti or his team went near that line in real life, but the point the filmmakers are firmly steering their documentary toward is that Andrésen was undeniably the victim of child exploitation. And fifty years later, the result is clear. In no way was this teenager prepared for the fame and misfortune that would come with this now notorious role.
As exposés go, this movie isn’t revealing anything new, as Andrésen’s account of that period has been on public record for some time, but it does shine a bright light on his experience with perfect clarity. With Death In Venice one of the earliest entries into the Queer cinematic cannon, the reality of its incarnation is an uncomfortable truth that is definitely worth telling. Visconti died just five years after the film’s release and is subsequently unable to defend himself, but the film raises difficult questions about the film industry’s treatment of child stars both back then and today. I watched Death In Venice for the first time a few years ago and found it deeply problematic, but this is a revelatory companion piece that finally joins its dots for the film-viewing public, fifty years later.