Does beauty come with a price? For Björn Andrésen, the cost of beauty was a life plagued by tragedy.

For years, the iconic Italian director Luchino Visconti scoured the world for pure and undeniable beauty, hoping to make real the enchanting beauty of Tadzio, the young boy from Thomas Mann’s infamous novella Death In Venice. Mann’s story follows Aschenbach, a man stunted by ennui who finds himself liberated from his languor when he comes across a young boy holidaying with his Mother in Venice. Aschenbach grows unhealthily obsessed with Tadzio, believing him to be his muse and the epitome of beauty. The novella spoke to Visconti on a profoundly personal level, moving him to go on the hunt for his own muse. He would only consider stopping his search when he found the living embodiment of Tadzio, complete with the exact golden blonde locks and mysterious grey eyes Mann had envisioned.

As it turned out, pure beauty did have a face. It belonged to Björn Andrésen, a fifteen-year-old boy from Stockholm, who, following the tragic disappearance of his mother, was raised by his elderly, showbiz loving grandmother. Encouraged to auditions he had little interest in, the shy and quiet Andrésen one day found himself in the presence of Visconti, who knew, as soon as he laid eyes on the boy, that he had found his Tadizo. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, constructed of an inconceivable volume of archival and present-day documentary footage, reveals the exact moment Andrésen steps into Visconti’s office to screen test for the part. He’s a slim, handsome young man with a gorgeous head of hair and an undeniable look of pain creeping behind his wide, innocent eyes. With their documentary, directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri take us on the journey through Andrésen’s life, from the moment Visconti asks him to strip half-naked to be photographed from head to toe, to the Cannes film festival where he became an overnight sensation, through the fallout of being used, drugged, left behind and treated as nothing more than a forgotten toy, thrown away by those who had once coveted him the most.

We’re introduced to Andrésen as he is today; he sports the worn-out skin of a drinker, an uncomfortable, vampiric frame and ancient-looking, unkempt grey hair that make him look much older than his 60 years. On one side of the camera, Andrésen and his girlfriend attempt to restore some semblance of order to his home, which appears to be the home of a hoarder with a poor sense of hygiene. Whereas on the other side of the camera, Petri and Lindström attempt to create order of Andrésen’s sorrowful life by structuring his archival footage around their present-day film. The disparity between Andrésen as the man he’s become and the boy he once was is vast and almost unbelievable; if it wasn’t for the same pained eyes meeting ours through the lens, we might deny that the present-day Björn Andrésen is really the person he claims to be.

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The devastating tale starts with the release of Death in Venice, after which the press brand Andrésen as ‘the most beautiful boy in the world’. Obsession spreads like wildfire; girls scream his name, and cameras flash in his face relentlessly. He’s pushed in every direction, often taken to sinister places where predatory men fetishise him with their eyes, longing to be close to him. He flies to Japan, where fans hound him at every waking moment. The industry, eager to capitalise from this mania, seek to commodify him, using him to advertise an array of meaningless products. They also have him record a love song in a language he cannot even speak, knowing his face alone will make the song a hit. People want so much to be near him that they will pay for his company, and the young boy, corrupted by an industry that has selfishly exploited him at every turn, lets them. In his angelic face, we are reminded of the heartthrobs who are to come after him, stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet, whose classical, boyish faces resemble Andrésen’s to an extraordinary degree. The documentary questions the mania and adoration that come with being a beautiful boy and reveals what’s left once beauty fades and hysteria settles down.

In one of the most compelling parts of the film, we meet a Japanese Manga artist named Riyoko Ikeda, who used Andrésen’s face as a blueprint when creating one of her female characters: a cross-dressing, boyish young woman, who we see in a clip from her anime show, passionately kissing an older man. She describes Death In Venice as the exact moment Andrésen was at his most beautiful, hinting that his captivating appearance was simply a fleeting moment in time. Even Visconti regards Andrésen’s ageing with distaste; when a journalist quizzes him about Andrésen’s looks at the film’s Cannes premiere, he cruelly announces that the boy’s beauty has already started to fade. Yet, it’s uncanny to hear Ikeda and Visconti describe how Andrésen inspired them to create their characters, as even though the subject has changed, the mania surrounding beautiful boys remains. Idols are now the subjects of raunchy fan-fiction, erotic fan-art and social media dedication. Just like Andrésen, today’s beautiful boys take on an unknowable but irresistible form that artists and fans romanticise, fetishise and push the boundaries of. To see what became of Andrésen’s life, and to hear how others carelessly used him as a disposable commodity with an expiration date, begs us to consider the idea that we should be more mindful of how we treat today’s desirable young men. 

The film constructs a classical portrait of Andrésen’s life, with the ghost of his youth haunting every frame of Lindström and Petri’s beautifully presented documentary footage. We learn how Andrésen’s inability to outrun his past has caused him great pain, leading him to drink and commit acts of negligence, both of which have had terrible repercussions on his life. It’s a sorry picture and a difficult tale that sometimes shifts in and out of focus, getting lost in the many darkened layers of Andrésen’s life. However, the potency with which it captures the devastating power of male beauty makes the film an unmissable and fascinating commentary on life and culture as we know it.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World will screen as part of Sundance London 2021 on July 30th 

By Leoni Horton

Leoni Horton is a Film and Culture journalist based in Manchester and the UK and EU Festivals Editor at Film Hounds. She has a MA in Literature and Writing For The Screen and is THE unofficial Safdie Brothers scholar. You can enjoy Leoni's unfunny meme and thirst tweets @inoelshikari

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