Title: The Most Beautiful Boy in the World
Directors: Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri
The weight and costs of celebrity are not uncommon subject matter for nonfiction cinema, since if there’s anything a fame-hungry American public loves quite as much as slipping behind velvet ropes with megastars or peering into their private lives, it’s assessing from a safe vantage point, with the benefit of hindsight and the self-satisfaction of moral judgment, the wreckage of overindulgence by famous people. A lot of these sorts of projects lack much in the way of ambition, to say nothing of execution, and so they sample from only the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of emotional engagement. But this thematic exploration gets an altogether beautiful treatment in The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which delivers something more raw and brooding and willfully melancholic than perhaps expected in its telling of the story of Bjorn Andresen, a 15-year-old Swedish boy plucked from obscurity to star in director Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice.
Andresen’s tale is a type of rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags-again story, with its subject coming from difficult circumstances and landing in a place which evokes no small amount of pitiable concern, and co-directors Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri survey all of this with compassion and sensitivity. While he’s had a career as an actor on stage and film (he memorably pops up in Midsommar, and is featured herein on the set of that 2019 film), when an audience first here meets Andresen he’s having to scramble to make good with his landlord, and convince her that he doesn’t deserve to be kicked out of his apartment for leaving the gas on unattended. His younger girlfriend, Jessica Vennberg, is an organizing presence, spearheading a massive clean-up of his filthy abode, and when they secure for him a reprieve Andresen sheds tears of relief. Still, viewers are left with a lingering question: is Andresen actually suicidal?
This is a gripping, and sadly appropriate, leaping off point for The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which takes its title from the appellation Visconti gave both the dragnet aim of the casting call for his film as well as the teenager he settled upon. The 1971 French-Italian drama tells the story of an older male artist, in this case a composer, obsessed with a young boy. And that is slightly mirrored in Visconti’s search for a young unknown to portray Thaddeus, or Tadzio, opposite star Dirk Bogarde. Footage of the casting session shows Visconti, with casting director Margareta Krantz, ordering a visibly uncomfortable Andresen to take off his shirt and pose for photos. Still, Andresen and others speak of Visconti’s fierce protection of him during filming. Once production wrapped, however, it sounds like there was a period of abuse, in addition to ongoing exploitation.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, in a very non-salacious manner, unpacks the heavy impact of all of this — the psychological toll of being cast, while still in a prepubescent state, in the role of a physically idealized object of romantic longing, and additionally for a sexual preference that is not your own — plus Andresen’s own traumatic childhood. The audition for Death in Venice, it turns out, was the idea of his grandmother. Andresen, who’d run away from a boarding school in Denmark back to his grandparents in Stockholm, was the product of a broken home; he never knew his father, and his single mother would eventually disappear, meeting a sad fate. After the release of the movie (and particularly its rapturous reception at the Cannes Film Festival), Andresen would become internationally known. In Japan, he would record several pop songs, and inspire an entire style of (still popular) anime showcasing boys with feminized features. Inside, though — and eventually outside — he was spiraling, torn up by unanswered questions of identity and self-worth.
Lindstrom and Petri are very much not interested in any type of heavy-handed external framing, so there’s neither any footage of Ari Aster or other contemporary figures discussing their work with Andresen, nor talking heads gazing into the past and extolling the brilliance of Death in Venice. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a highly subjective work, putting viewers with its subject as he trips back to Japan, and reconnects with some of the “minders” who oversaw his life while he was in that country. Other portions of the movie’s first half, though, simply follow Andresen’s day-to-day routine, or conversations with Jessica in which he haltingly opens up about his past. The few additional onscreen interviewees are well chosen, and this material smartly curated.
A documentary competition title at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie waits awfully late to pivot to extended biographical details about Andresen’s adult life, but this actually feels appropriate. It’s with a fuller sense and understanding of Andresen’s isolation and perhaps self-destructive (or at the very least certainly depressive) tendencies that one is finally introduced to his daughter Robine. Eventually, more and more of his domestic backstory gets filled in, including the death of a son, Elvin, at only nine months old (“Their diagnosis is SIDS. But my diagnosis is lack of love,” he says, heartbreakingly). He also takes a trip to a government office which houses child welfare records and other documents, to learn more details about his mother’s fate.
Gaunt and bearded, with a physicality which jointly announces “wizard cosplay” as well as all the darker and more suffering, damaged aspects of his personality, Andresen is a somewhat reticent figure. But he is quite capable of incisive and descriptive shorthand, as when he characterizes himself as “a wandering trophy” during several post-Death in Venice years in Paris, where others paid for his apartment and gave him monthly spending money. And it is this fact — his cold, unblinking self-scrutiny, and the slow-blooming trust he displays in finally speaking aloud some of his truths — which ultimately makes The Most Beautiful Boy in the World so uniquely touching. A couple points could benefit from further clarification (vague mention is made, for instance, of a three-year contract which Visconti had with Andresen even after the completion of their movie), but Lindstrom and Petri have crafted a delicate, artful and heartrending film which speaks across time to the tragic nature of innocence taken too soon.
Written by: Brent Simon