Kristina Lindstom and Kristian Petri’s The Most Beautiful Boy In The World, which premiered at Sundance today as part of the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, is a melancholy portrait of Swedish actor Björn Andrésen who was cast as a teenager by Luchino Visconti in his 1971 BAFTA-winning classic Death in Venice. Andrésen has had a difficult life; he lost his mother under tragic and mysterious circumstances when he was still a child, later lost one of his own children to sudden infant death syndrome, for which he blames himself, became distant from his daughter into her adulthood, and has struggled with alcoholism and depression. The documentary though seems to suggest that all of his problems stem from being cast in the film. Having first presented him as the fifteen year-old whom Visconti cast, we’re then introduced to the present day Andrésen (who turned 66 on January 26th) being gently berated by his girlfriend Jessica for the state of his apartment. She’s spent ten days cleaning the place, with him in danger of being asked to leave the building because of the condition he’s been keeping it in. In archive footage of the Death in Venice Cannes press conference in 1971 we’re shown Visconti commenting on the uncomfortable looking then 16 year-old Andrésen’s appearance, saying he’s aged since he cast him and is now at an awkward teenage stage, no longer the “most beautiful boy in the world”, as he had described him at the film’s royal world premiere in London. By showing that particular clip of Visconti, the filmmakers appear to be critical of the director’s rather insensitive way of talking about the teen’s looks, but in continually contrasting how he looked as a child and how he looks and lives now, there’s perhaps a whiff of agism in the documentary itself, or at least a fascination with what age has done to that “beautiful boy” fifty years on.
We see the present day Andrésen return to Venice, resulting in some gorgeous, beautifully shot images by cinematographer Erik Vallsten, then he returns to France where he recalls having lived for a year with older gay men paying his way, and, most interestingly, to Tokyo where he had an intense stint as a national teen idol; starring in a string of adverts, inspiring Manga artist Riyoko Ikeda with his looks, and even recording and releasing a song in Japanese (which we see the adult Björn revisit as a karaoke track). The Japan section is perhaps the most fascinating and enlightening section of the film in terms of examining how the success of the film impacted his burgeoning career, but the tone remains relentlessly gloomy.
The documentary’s rather heavy-handed approach is most apparent in its use of ominous, unnerving music in sequences such as the Death in Venice casting session where, with casting director Margareta Krantz present, we see Visconti ask the teenage Björn to pose in his underwear. Like much of the documentary, it would likely have been more impactful had we been allowed to witness the scene unfold for ourselves, and given the opportunity to form our own judgements on it, rather than being told what to think by the music. The filmmakers are eager to underscore that this was a pivotal moment which would affect the course of the young man’s life, which of course is true, but the music also seems to be suggesting, whether intentionally or not, that there was an inappropriate or sinister aspect to the casting process itself. Although it is never explicit, as the film goes on there’s also a sense that the filmmakers are touching upon old tropes that link being gay with predatory behaviour towards young men. Andrésen briefly mentions in voice over a Cannes afterparty where sexual activity took place, but it’s something that is not explored any further than that.
During a moving, intimate and sensitively handled segment of the film we accompany Andrésen to the public records office where he reads a report of the circumstances of his mother’s death and tries to find information on his father whom he knows nothing about. Overall, there’s a sense that the film is only scratching the surface of who Björn Andrésen is as a man and how he was affected by being in the media spotlight. We see unsmiling photographs of him but don’t get a deep insight into what it was like to be that teenager. Perhaps it’s not so much a fault of the filmmakers but more that Andrésen is still processing that for himself. He went on to have a successful acting career working in every decade since Venice was released, but the only other film we see a clip from is Ari Aster’s 2019 horror Midsommar. Giving a little more focus to his longterm acting success and his passion for music might have provided some balance and a little more light and shade. As the documentary closes it’s hard not to feel that there’s a more penetrating and well-rounded film to be made about Andrésen’s life.
By James Kleinmann
The Most Beautiful Boy In The World had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.