The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

 

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The question is, what happened to the young actor who played Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice?

 
Most Beautiful Boy in the World

 

Fascinating but hardly satisfying, this unexpected documentary by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri looks at the life of Björn Andrésen. His role as Tadzio in the 1971 film of the Thomas Mann novella Death in Venice made him famous and publicity for it attached to him the tag that is now used as the title of this documentary. What happened to Andrésen thereafter (he us now sixty-six years old) will come as news to many although a minor acting career did recently include a supporting role in Midsommer (2019). What is indisputable is that he is somebody who acquired celebrity status in his mid-teens and was daunted by the experience ever after. Indeed, as an adult Björn Andrésen has led a notably troubled life. It might even be surmised that there has been an element of self-destruction in the way that depression has led to alcohol addiction. For those who know him from the Visconti film it is startling to come across him in this documentary: our first sight of him shows us a long-haired, bearded man failing to keep his apartment clean and threatened with eviction. He himself says that, while he sometimes feels like a human being, at other times he does not.

 

This film was made over some five years and is firmly centred on Andrésen talking about his life. We do indeed learn a great deal starting with details about his childhood when in the care of his grandmother. When it comes to Death in Venice, there is more to see than the extracts from the film that are incorporated since there is much behind-the-scenes footage including his own audition at the age of fifteen. We later discover that, however great the international fame that resulted from Visconti’s film, his greatest impact was in Japan. He became the nation’s first western idol after appearing in TV commercials and recording songs. However, by then he felt that he had become the prisoner of his fame and it may well have been the case that the kind of pressures experienced by other youngsters in that kind of situation were even greater for him. If the tag of the most beautiful boy added to the sense of his being placed on a pedestal, the fact that the gay subject-matter of Death in Venice made him a gay icon must have added to the strain.

 

It is not only this phase of his life that is revealed here but also later developments. They include the uncovering of information about his parents, a difficult relationship with his daughter who appears in the film (that’s Robine Román), the break-up of a love affair with Jessica Vennberg and, most significantly of all, a key tragedy in his life that occurred in the mid-1980s and for which he blames himself. Yet, while all this commands our interest, it also reveals a life that needs to come fully into focus if it is to make sense and that is where Lindström and Petri fail and leave us with too many questions unanswered.

 

As a generalised view of the perils of early fame, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is persuasive enough. However, the filmmakers have claimed that this is the story of a film that destroyed someone’s life. As they present it on screen, this is more than a comment on the cost of becoming a teenage celebrity. It is pointed out that Death in Venice had a fully gay crew and that to protect his young actor Visconti declared that the beautiful boy was off-limits to them. Nevertheless, Andrésen indicates that once the filming was over the protection ended and he cites being present after some drinking at a gay party following the Cannes screening. Andrésen may be frank about much in his life, but he does not indicate what, if anything, actually happened to him at that party. Less reticent is the tone adopted by this film in its attitude to the original audition since it shows footage of it twice over and seeks to suggest that it was very disturbing for a gay director to ask the youth to take his shirt off. Andrésen himself does talk of his gay followers and even tells of how for a while in 1976 when he had a potential film project in France he was set up in an apartment in Paris by a man who paid for his company. Whether or not being shown off as a trophy in this way led to the man making sexual demands and, if so, how that made Andrésen feel is again not revealed.

 

What The Most Beautiful Boy in the World does show us clearly is a traumatised life, but as we learn more about Björn Andrésen it becomes apparent that both in his early years and very much later there were events quite unconnected with his appearance in Death in Venice which could have played a major role in making Andrésen the man he is. To blame everything on Visconti’s film seems rather unfair, especially in the way that it is done here (apparently the grandmother was intent on having a grandson who would be a celebrity and in consequence much could be put down to her, but we never learn what view Andrésen takes of her). It seems likely that even now Björn Andrésen has still to come to terms with his life and how he has handled it - in which case that fact in itself explains in part why this film should fail to satisfy however intriguing it is.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Björn Andrésen, Annika Andrésen, Silva Filmer, Riyoko Ikeda, Margareta Krantz, Ann Lagerström, Robine Román, Masatoshi Sakai,  Miriam Sambol, Hajime Sawatari, Max Seki, Jessica Vennberg, Johanna Lidén.

 

Dir Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, Pro Stina Gardell, Screenplay Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, Ph Erik Vallsten, Ed Hanna Lejonkvist and Dino Jonsätar, Music Anna von Hausswolff and Filip Leyman.

 

Mantaray Film/Sveriges Television/ZDF/Arte/Jonas Gardell Produktion-Dogwoof.
84 mins. Sweden/Germany. 2021. Rel: 30 July 2021. Cert. 15.