On the 50th anniversary of Luchino Visconti iconic arthouse feature Death in Venice, the film is not being remembered for its artistic grace, but rather opposingly, its archaic attitudes, particularly when it comes down to its behind the scenes practises.
Visconti’s shortcomings are highlighted by filmmakers Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri in their latest documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which looks into the casting process of the film’s main lead, Björn Andrésen. Disturbing and uncomfortable, their investigation is a timely reminder of the exploitative nature of the entertainment industry, casting light on the unscrupulous practices of old whilst suggesting toward their continued existence.
Björn Andrésen was plucked from total obscurity when he was chosen to appear in the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice, swept from his Stockholm home when director Luchino Visconti was on a universal search for the most beautiful boy in the world. The shy 15-year-old teenage boy would be unwillingly shoved into adulthood once his image was made into a commodity by Visconti, taken to Cannes, Venice and the film’s premiere in London. It was in the English capital that the director famously introduced Andrésen as “the most beautiful boy in the world”.
Becoming a cultural figurehead in Japan, it is thought that Andrésen was one of the first entertainment stars to elicit the idol culture that permeated the 20th century and into the 21st. Lindström and Petri’s documentary is an analysis of this challenging period for Andrésen, forced to be identified under this new ‘beautiful’ label, having a considerable impact on his development in later life.
“He sees me as a piece of meat on a plate,” the young actor says of director Luchino Visconti, who even had Andrésen under contract at one point, with rights to his image reserved for the use of Visconti only. The young actor became an object of desire, his expression of ‘pure beauty’ being used merely as a way for Visconti to further his own career with a total disregard for the essence of the individual himself.
Presented as more of a portrait of the emanating effects of the film on the later life of Björn Andrésen, rather than a deep dive into the production of Death in Venice itself, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World becomes a deeply personal retrospective. Nostalgic and painfully sorrowful, we see an older, weathered Andrésen cope with his simple, rudimental life, still reeling from the scars of his torturous adolescence. The white walls of his cramped flat contrast greatly with the grand sets of Death in Venice and his multiple glitzy premieres, whilst his broken relationship seems agonisingly distant from his amorous role in Visconti’s film.
It creates a personal journey that toys with ideas of beauty, desire and sacrifice, which is equally compelling as it is detached, feeling like a story so raw with personal detail that its true quality is reserved only for Andrésen. As such, it remains an emotionally enthralling journey and one that speaks poignantly of the sensitive personas of young actors, with the fragility of being moulded by every significant impact of their perplexing adolescent lives.