“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” – In the eye of the beholder [MOVIE REVIEW]
“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” chronicles the early life of Björn Andrésen who had a pivotal role in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film “Death in Venice.” At the time, much was made of Visconti’s world-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio, the obsession of middle-aged composer Gustav von Aschenbach played by Dirk Bogarde in the adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. When asked (repeatedly) what he was looking for in the subjective arena of young male beauty, he said he would know when he saw it. In a Swedish casting office, he found it in the face of Björn, barely 15 at the time.
Awkward, sensitive, shy, clearly embarrassed, Björn was eventually swept up into a maelstrom of publicity and pressure, never losing his serenity, or at least so it seemed. Visconti, gay, rich, and famous, appears to have been cognizant of the pressures exerted on his young find and protected him, at least as far as the filming went. Notably, he kept Björn under personal contract for three years, controlling all his appearances. The final film footage attests to Visconti’s choice because Björn innocently represents all that von Aschenbach could dream of. Björn has an ethereal presence that can’t be taught.
Is he the most beautiful boy in the world? There were probably others who filled that category. He was Visconti’s vision for his film and he fulfilled it magnificently. Could this possibly have been healthy? Of course not. Was it Björn’s choice? Absolutely not. Having been abandoned to his grandmother’s care by his mother who disappeared, it was his grandmother’s desire to live a celebrity-adjacent life and it was she who dragged him to the audition.
Written and directed by Swedish documentarians Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, they open on the present day Björn, now in his mid-sixties, aimless and about to be evicted from his apartment in Stockholm. Slovenly, shaggy-haired, bearded, almost unrecognizable, he is rescued by his girlfriend who helps him get organized, cleans the apartment, and orders his life, allowing him to remain in his home.
Lindström and Petri move back and forth in time detailing some of what happened to him after the film. He became a real idol in Japan. The next time you see a romantic manga you may recognize his face as the model for both the male and female lead characters. To Riyoko Ikeda, a star artist in that world, he was truly the representation of earthly beauty.
At the time of his greatest fame, footage seems to indicate that he lived a serene existence. He eventually returned to Sweden, married, had children, and went to acting school. He had a decent career and in checking his credits, he had many roles. But looking closer at those credits, one realizes that they were small roles with large time gaps between acting jobs before he started getting better jobs in 2014.
Lindström and Kristian Petri are very good at showing us the beginning and the end, but the middle of Björn’s life, the part that went off the rails due to alcohol and personal tragedy is almost entirely missing. Always alluded to and never directly addressed was that his missing mother, who was found dead a year and a half after she disappeared, clearly suffered from depression. The older Björn is the poster child for depression and yet it’s never discussed.
Although purportedly showing the effect of early fame and pressure in a fishbowl that could never last, it does no such thing. The Björn we are shown is a teenager of preternatural calm. At some point along the way, he learned workable Japanese, French, and English. He clearly has depth and intelligence but we are left to make that assumption on our own. Too much is missing for one to consider this a portrait of a complex human being.
Although extremely flawed as a film, the picture of Björn that does emerge, especially in the present day, is complex and interesting. I just wish that there had been a thread that carried through from beginning to the present day. With such large gaps in his timeline and mental health, this cannot be considered a well-rounded portrait of a complicated man who, as a youth, had fame and unreasonable expectations thrust upon him.
In Swedish with English subtitles.
Opening Friday September 24 at the NuArt.
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