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THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLD: Björn Andrésen & “Death in Venice”

By Jim Gilles

Björn Andrésen at casting by Visconti

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/21/22 – Screening virtually as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival 2022 Los Angeles is Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri’s documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Sweden, 2021). The documentary recounts the story of Björn Andrésen, who shot to fame as a teenager thanks to his appearance as Tadzio in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice. 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.

Björn Andrésen & Luchino Visconti

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. he’s gaunt and wizened, smoking incessantly and sporting an unkempt Gandalf-like white beard. When we meet him at the start of the documentary, he is 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. That changes a bit, as his girlfriend helps him clean up the apartment in Stockholm and he started to put his life back in order at age 62. The film was shot over a period of five years so we see Andrésen revisiting many places that were part of his early life as a famous young actor, including at the film’s end, Venice itself.

Björn Andrésen as the most beautiful boy in the world

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. We see his impromptu screen test at a 1970 casting call in Stockholm that looks like a season opener of American Idol: dozens – hundreds – of boys, some disturbingly young, all showing up to audition for the great Visconti. Björn was the fifth or sixth kid the director saw, and right away he knew. Amazingly, even Björn’s hair was feathered in the exact way it would appear in Death in Venice.

Björn Andrésen as Tadzio opposite Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice

In Visconti’s Death in Venice, the unknown Andrésen made an indelible impression in the film. The camera is clearly in love with 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. On March 1, 1971, Death in Venice had its world premiere in London, in the presence of the Queen and Princess Anne. That night, Visconti declared Andrésen to be “the most beautiful boy in the world,” and the label stuck. As the documentary presents it, the real circus began at the Cannes Film Festival. We see plenty of footage of that, and you feel the swirl of eroticized excitement merging with the imprimatur of art. We see Visconti at the press conference, saying of Björn, in reference to his audition day, “He was more beautiful then.” He jokes that at 16, he’s already getting too old and tall.

Björn Andrésen as a boy

The night of the premiere, the director took him to a gay club, where Björn felt assaulted by the gazes. Then again, as much of a culture shock as this was, by the early ’70s plenty of pretty young stars – notably from the rock world – had been thrust into the limelight. Björn may have been beautiful, but he was basically a shy provincial teenager who wanted to be a musician, and his alienated experience related every bit as much to his past:

Björn Andrésen as teenage idol in Japanese mangas in the 1970s

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. Andrésen is a gifted musician; he became the father of two children; and then, finally, there’s the story of how he lost one of his children, which is enough to freeze you. It certainly froze Björn Andrésen. 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 meets a particularly gruesome end.

Björn Andrésen with his half-twin sister and his mother (before her disappearance)

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.

Björn Andrésen later married with his two children

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.