The Most Beautiful Boy in the World counts the personal cost of international fame

Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri document the tragic and troubled life of Björn Andrésen, an actor thrust into stardom aged 15.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (2021)

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is in UK cinemas and on BFI Player and other digital platforms from 30 July.

Björn Andrésen rocketed to fame after being cast as Tadzio, the beautiful boy who sparks a deep passion in Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). The obsession is often interpreted as pederastic, although in the context of the film Tadzio represents much more than an object of lust. Cast when he was just 15, he was christened by Visconti “the most beautiful boy in the world”. Andrésen became a star in Japan, where he inspired a series of bishonen anime, featuring androgynous male youths. But, as Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World shows, Andrésen’s life was plagued by tragedy.

A whole movie could be made about the complex position that Death in Venice and its reception occupy in the queer cultural canon. While Andrésen certainly attracted a lot of attention from gay men, some of the comments in the documentary clumsily stray close to reinforcing tropes of predatory behaviour.

The film pinpoints the casting of Andrésen as the moment that would change his life for the worse. Yet, while it convincingly shows how the avalanche of attention Andrésen received on the film’s release had damaging effects, such a reading is superficial, particularly in the context of a life-changing tragedy that happened some years before he was cast in Visconti’s film.

Luchino Visconti and Björn Andrésen on the set of Death in Venice (1971)

The film is at its best when showing how Andrésen was let down by the adults in his life, especially his grandmother, who is described as being selfish and fame-hungry. In a particularly cruel moment, archive footage of a Cannes press junket shows Visconti joking in French about how Andrésen, now 16, is no longer as beautiful. The journalists cackle while the boy, who does not speak the language, looks hopelessly lost.

Andrésen today is unrecognisable. A quiet, vulnerable man often on the verge of tears, he remains childlike and dependent, even in his sixties. The film shows him living in a filthy apartment, at risk of eviction, which his girlfriend, with whom he has a complex relationship, helps him to avoid.

Despite being the subject of a documentary about his life, he is a private, shy man, and the audience is left to fill in the gaps, particularly about his time as a young adult in Paris (where his accommodation was paid for by a man with dubious motives), and the last couple of decades (about which we learn little).

His post-Death in Venice acting career, which continues to this day, is barely mentioned, although we see production footage of his memorable screentime in the horror hit Midsommar (2019). As a lesson in the damaging effects poor guardianship can have on children, however, the film certainly makes its point.

Further reading

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, we republish this report from our Autumn 1970 issue in which Margaret Hinxman visits the film’s set and talks to its star Dirk Bogarde.

By Margaret Hinxman

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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