In the early 1970s, celebrated Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, aristocrat, Communist and gay, was looking for a teenage boy to cast in his highly anticipated adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel ”Death in Venice”. His search took him to many countries, but it ended in Sweden. After seeing a few boys, Visconti knew that he had found what he was looking for as soon as 15-year-old Björn Andrésen entered the room. The kid had a beautiful, angelic face, the perfect choice to play Tadzio, an alluring symbol of both life and death. The moment was captured by a camera and the footage is eerily fascinating, as we watch an innocent teenager who doesn’t really want to be there embark on an adventure that will change his life.
At the time, it wasn’t obvious that accepting the role of Tadzio would have a profoundly negative influence on Andrésen, but in this arresting documentary we learn why he was particularly vulnerable.
In trouble with his landlord
When we first meet the adult Björn Andrésen in this film, he’s in his mid-sixties and in trouble with his landlord. The apartment in Stockholm that he’s renting is in a terrible state and he’s close to being evicted for posing a fire hazard. Unless he cleans his apartment, and especially his kitchen, he’s out. His girlfriend Jessica helps him negotiate with the landlord and get his home back in shape. It’s obvious that Andrésen has moments when he’s struggling.
He takes us on a journey through life, beginning with his childhood. Together with his sister, he was more or less raised by a grandmother who wanted him to become famous; she was the one who got him into Death in Venice. It was after the shoot that the problems began, as Visconti dragged Andrésen into the limelight (including gay clubs, where the then 16-year-old boy constantly felt like a piece of meat), subjecting him to situations that made him feel very insecure and uncomfortable, driving him to drink alcohol as a way of coping. The experience marked him for life, but it’s only the beginning of the story.
Going back to Tokyo and Venice
Far too many Swedish documentaries are entirely focused on the story they’re trying to tell, the issue at hand, but here’s an example of a film that actually looks like it belongs in a cinema, not just a TV special. Cinematographer Erik Vallsten takes us to Tokyo together with Björn and Jessica, reliving Andrésen’s period as a teenage sensation in Japan, where ”the most beautiful boy in the world” (Visconti’s words) inspired bishõnen manga; later in the film we’re back in Venice where Andrésen revisits the locations of the shoot 50 years later. These magnificent places (along with many others in the film) fill the screen in a way that’s eye-catching but also melancholic; we feel like we’re part of the leading man’s grief and we listen to his thoughts with rapt attention.
Andrésen may be an old man now, with a scraggy beard and long, white hair, shuffling around in his black leather overcoat, but the charisma is intact – and in spite of his troubles, he’s still an active performer. He does look like a man who’s gone through much pain (his mother’s suicide and the death of his young son directly contributed to depression and alcohol abuse), but the filmmakers also highlight the love in his life, primarily represented by his sister and daughter.
A moving, engrossing story about the human being behind the icon that also turns into a relevant commentary on the need to keep children protected not only during the shoot of a film. One’s responsibility doesn’t end just because someone says ”that’s a wrap”.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World 2021-Sweden. 93 min. Color-B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Stina Gardell. Written and directed by Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri. Cinematography: Erik Vallsten. Music: Anna von Hausswolff, Filip Leyman.
Trivia: Original title: Världens vackraste pojke.
Last word: “[I worked with Andrésen] 20 years ago, a children’s TV series. He was the bad guy, scaring all the kids, and he loved it. We had a great time, and I knew, of course, about his story, but I felt that he wasn’t too keen on talking about that. But he was great personally, with very much a sense of humour. Time passed by, and I had dinner with him, and Kristina was coming along and asked all these questions that I didn’t ask before […] One day he said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s do it.’ From that day on, he’s always been very much involved in the film in many ways. It was very important for us, especially considering his past with ‘Death in Venice’, that very – well, how can you say it? – negative, dark experience for him. We didn’t want to repeat that, obviously.” (Petri, BFI)