The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is playing in selected cinemas from the 30th of 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 sat in a warm hotel room awaiting a day of auditions. Visconti had travelled from Budapest to Sweden, searching for a boy who reflected Thomas Mann’s description of Tadzio in the 1912 novella Death in Venice. Yet the elusive ‘most beautiful boy in the world’ remained hidden from his view. As his day in Stockholm continued, a stream of young boys entered the opulent hotel room, but just as before, every boy carried imperfections, whether in his looks, body type, age or photogenic quality. But when fifteen-year-old Björn Andrésen walked in, Visconti’s interest was finally sparked.
The boy standing in front of Visconti was handsome, quiet and delicate, and as Visconti pictured Tadzio in his mind, Björn was asked to remove his sweater and pace the room. Björn paused, unsure of the instruction he had been given, before doing as requested with a shy smile. Meanwhile, Visconti considered his beauty, physique and age as doubts crept into his mind. Is he too tall for Tadzio? Is he already too old? Visconti left the hotel unsure yet equally captivated by the shy teenager.
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Björn’s audition on that fateful day was not a personal choice but one driven by his grandmother’s wishes for a famous grandson. Björn had been successful in acquiring a small role in Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story the year before, and his grandmother was keen for him to capitalise on his first film by securing a second.
Björn carried little outward confidence; he was shy, sensitive, quiet, and also midway through adolescence. Added to this, Björn’s home life was complicated following the disappearance and then the death of his mother some years before – here, the reasons for her death were held in silence. Meanwhile, the identity of his father also remained a mystery for both him and his sister. While his grandmother may have offered love and protection, Björn’s dreams, wishes, and desires felt a mile away from the hotel room he found himself in on that cold day in 1970.
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Watching the handheld camera footage of that audition now is an uncomfortable experience. Björn is clearly in discomfort as Visconti studies his body from a distance; the instruction to take off his top is embarrassing, unexpected and challenging for a shy young man. At this point, I must say that I am not suggesting Björn was abused or that Visconti groomed him. On that day, he was a mere doll, a muse, as Visconti looked for perfection.
Just a few months later, Visconti would announce that he had found his Tadzio and Björn’s name and identity were swept away in an instant by Thomas Mann’s creation. His image was no longer his own, as he became the face of a film surrounded by controversy and adoration. Here, the media circus’s effect was devastating for a shy young man still trying to find his place in the world. Björn would find his fifteen-year-old self frozen in time, forever immortal, as Visconti pronounced him, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.
Björn and Visconti on the set of ‘Morte A Venezia’ (Copyright Mario Tursi 1970)
The treatment of Björn is uncomfortable fifty years on; after all, this was a boy treated as a piece of meat in a world obsessed with young male beauty. But Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s new documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, also asks us to consider whether anything has changed fifty years later. After all, while many aspects of the audition process have improved, young people still find themselves treated as objects of public desire. 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; his body was suddenly a publicly owned commodity, and millions of new fans invaded his personal life.
Meanwhile, the remake of Stephen King’s IT in 2017 would see the young stars who made up the losers club catapulted to fame. Here young teenage fans would create memes, videos and fan fiction based on their new crushes. They would even invent relationships with hashtags and build videos to prove the boys were gay and in love, just as they had done with One Direction years before. We all know how damaging and deadly this fandom can be for the individual; we have lost far too many young stars over the decades to avoid it. Yet, as they grow older, we quickly forget these teen idols, their public image forever that of a kid or teen.
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Björn was also frozen in time and forgotten. But following a small part in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Björn would see the press return as they recounted how unbelievable it was that the old man who jumped from the rock was, in fact, Tadzio. Of course, the press seemed oblivious to the fact that fifty years had passed in Björn Andrésen’s life between Death in Venice and Midsommer. But, this renewed interest raised a question, what had 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
We join Björn as he wanders around his small apartment, ashtrays lining the tables packed to the brim with cigarette butts, the kitchen strewn with unwashed plates, glasses and pans. Björn has recently learnt that he is at risk of eviction, and his new girlfriend has offered to help him clean the apartment. However, for Björn, this cluttered mess represents a life of unresolved trauma, his self-identity, emotions, and sense of belonging still tormented by the ghost of Tadzio. The most beautiful boy in the world had grown up long ago with a failed marriage and the death of his second-born child. But, added to this, his mother’s disappearance continued to eat away at his thoughts, the need for the truth scratching at him more and more as the years went by.
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Björn’s experiences take us from Stockholm to Venice and Japan to Paris as he explores a life lived in the shadow of his instant fame. Here his present-day search for healing is combined with rare footage from his past as Lindström and Petri carefully weave together the past and the present. There are moments of excruciating pain, like the press conference following the London premiere of Death in Venice, where we see a sixteen or seventeen-year-old Björn singled out by Visconti with a series of cutting remarks on him having lost his beauty due to adolescence. While Björn’s adult recollections of his jobs entertaining groups of men in Paris during his late teens are genuinely shocking.
However, a feeling of incompleteness surrounds these stories, and one can’t help but feel there is even more, to be told. As Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s stunning documentary closes, we are left with more questions than answers about Björn’s experiences. However, where the documentary excels is the stunning dissection of media exploitation and the damaging social obsession with fleeting teenage beauty. Here, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World unpicks our social obsession with youth and beauty and speaks to the past and present in our treatment of young stars.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is 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.