The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is playing in selected cinemas from the 30th July.
“With astonishment, Aschenbach observed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and charmingly secretive, with the honey-coloured hair curling around it, with its straight-sloping nose, its lovely mouth and its expression of sweet and divine earnestness, recalled Greek statues of the noblest period”.
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice (1912)
Let me start by taking you back to a snow-covered Stockholm in the winter of 1970. Here, the acclaimed director Luchino Visconti sits in a warm hotel room awaiting a day of auditions. Having travelled from Budapest to Sweden, Visconti is yet to find a boy who reflects Thomas Mann’s description of Tadzio in the 1912 novella Death in Venice. His epic casting journey across Europe, one of perfection as he hunts for the most beautiful boy in the world. As his day in Stockholm continues, a stream of young boys enters the opulent room. But, each boy carries imperfections, whether in looks, body type, age or photogenic quality. However, as the day wears on, fifteen-year-old Björn Andrésen walks in, and Visconti’s interest is sparked.
The boy standing in front of Visconti is handsome, quiet and almost delicate. And as Visconti pictures Tadzio in his mind, he asks Björn to remove his sweater and pace the room; the young boy pauses, unsure of the instruction he has been given, before doing as requested with a shy smile. As Visconti considers his beauty, physique and age, doubts creep in. Is the teenager too tall and old for Tadzio? And as he left Stockholm, his next stop Helsinki, Visconti considered this question, unsure yet equally captivated by the shy teenager.
For Björn, his audition on that fateful day was not a personal choice; his grandmother the driving force behind his attendance, following his small role in Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story. Here, his grandmother was keen for Björn to capitalise on his first film role by securing a second. However, Björn carried little outward confidence, his persona shy, sensitive and quiet.
Meanwhile, Björn’s home life was complicated following the disappearance and then the death of his mother some years before. The reason for her death, held in an uncomfortable silence alongside the identity of his and his sister’s father. And while his grandmother offered love and protection, Björn’s dreams, wishes and desires felt distant from the hotel room he found himself in on that cold day in 1970. His discomfort as Visconti studied his body from a distance, visibly clear. Visconti’s instruction to take off his top, embarrassing, unexpected and challenging for a shy young man who suddenly found his physique scrutinised by strangers. But, no matter how uncomfortable Björn may have been, the audition was about to change his life forever.
Just a few months later, Visconti would announce that he had found his Tadzio. Björn’s name and identity, instantly replaced by that of Thomas Mann’s creation. His image, no longer his own, as he became the face of a film surrounded by both controversy and adoration. The effects of the media circus that ensued, devastating for a shy young man still trying to find his place in the world. For Björn, his fifteen-year-old self would be frozen in time, forever immortal, as Visconti announced him to be, the most beautiful boy in the world.
Björn and Visconti on the set of ‘Morte A Venezia’ (Copyright Mario Tursi 1970)
Watching Björn’s audition process in Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s new documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, 50 years after the release of Death in Venice, is uncomfortable viewing. But, in reality, although many aspects of the process have changed for the better, young people still find themselves treated as objects of public desire today. For example, just weeks after the release of Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet’s image was everywhere, from social media to magazines and videos. With Chalamet instantly becoming a sex symbol and object of fantasy in the hands of an army of new fans on social media.
Meanwhile, Stephen King’s IT in 2017 saw the young stars who made up its losers club suddenly catapulted to fame. Dozens of young teenage fans creating memes, videos and fan fiction based on their new crushes. In truth, we know that fame at a young age can be fleeting, damaging and deadly to the individual; we have lost far too many young stars over the decades to avoid this. And yet, we quickly forget the young people caught in this whirlwind as they grow older. With public interest diminishing as they move from child to teenager or teenager to adult. Their popularity or image, frozen in time as they age. The press only choosing to return to these young stars years later to comment on how they’ve aged or fallen from grace.
READ MORE: ACTORS AND ACTRESSES
For Björn, this renewed press interest occurred in 2019 following the release of Ari Aster’s Midsommar. His small role as an older man sacrificing himself by jumping from a ledge suddenly leading to a flurry of press articles and social media posts. Each one, announcing how unbelievable it was that the old man who jumped from the rock was, in fact, Tadzio. The reality that nearly fifty years had passed in Björn Andrésen’s life between Death in Venice and Midsommer suddenly sparking renewed interest. But, this, in turn, raised a question, what happened to Björn in the intervening years? And what was the lasting personal impact of being crowned the most beautiful boy in the world at the tender age of fifteen?
Björn Andrésen (The Most Beautiful Boy in the World) ©️Dogwoof
As we join Björn in his small apartment, ashtrays line the tables, each packed to the brim with cigarette butts. While at the same time, the kitchen is strewn with unwashed plates, glasses and pans. A threat of eviction hovers over him as his new girlfriend helps him clean the apartment. But, for Björn, this cluttered mess represents a life of unresolved trauma. His world, self-identity, and emotions, still tormented by Tadzio, a failed marriage, and his second-born child’s death. But, added to this, his mother’s disappearance and death haunt his thoughts as he tries to move forward while remaining stuck in a complex past.
It is immediately apparent that there is a deep trust between Björn, Lindström and Petri, and profound bravery on the part of Björn as he lets the cameras into his life. The result, a haunting portrait of a man, held hostage by a youth lost in fame and a family lost in secrets. In a deeply personal documentary that never shies away from tackling complex issues.
READ MORE: DEATH IN VENICE AT 50
Björn’s experiences take us from Stockholm to Venice, Japan and Paris as he recounts a life lived in the shadow of instant fame. His present-day search for healing combined with rare footage from his past. And it is within its ability to weave the past with the present that, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World finds a unique and distinct voice. For example, the press conference following the London premiere of Death in Venice is nothing short of horrifying. Here, we see a sixteen or seventeen-year-old Björn uncomfortably singled out by Visconti. His cutting remarks on Björn having lost some of his beauty due to adolescence, incredibly damaging for any young person to hear, let alone in a busy press conference.
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Meanwhile, Björn’s recollections of jobs in his late teen’s entertaining groups of men in Paris are shocking. But, this, in turn, brings me to a feeling of incompleteness in the story told. Of course, it is understandable that many memories may be too difficult to express. While at the same time, others may now reside in an unreliable haze. But, one can’t help but feel there is, even more, to explore as this beautiful and powerful documentary closes. However, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s stunning dissection of media exploitation and the damaging social obsession with fleeting teenage beauty is stunning. Their camera weaving together Björn’s past and present into an intricate tapestry of life.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is ultimately an insightful and powerful exploration of a fame never sought, a beauty brought and sold, and a family life left fractured by tragedy. Here, Björn’s honest, brave and emotional story is full of urgency, its messages loud and clear, as we dissect the damaging influence of a media world obsessed with youth.