At the height of his teenage fame, actor Björn Andresen was beset by a particular fear: that fans who sought him out at events were wielding scissors, in order to snip one of his golden locks. So overwhelming was the young Swede’s fame that the idea wasn’t just possible, it was probable.
Plucked from obscurity by Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti to star in his 1971 “Death in Venice,” Andresen rocketed into public consciousness at the age of 15, a consuming rollercoaster ride that has never quite abated. In Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s crushing “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” Andresen’s fraught past and complicated present merge into a single portrait of a man exposed to unimaginable grief and pain, so much of it care of a society that blithely consumes its most gentle citizens. The documentary does not grapple with some of the more salacious elements of Andresen’s story — now perhaps is the time to explain that “Death in Venice” follows an aging composer (the 50-year-old Dirk Bogarde) who becomes obsessed with a teenage boy (Andresen) — that never obscures the emotional fallout he experienced.
In the winter of 1970, Visconti traveled to Sweden in search of a “pure beauty” to anchor his film. He cut an imposing figure: Rich, famous, openly gay, and a visionary who wanted nothing less than a star whom he would later term “the most beautiful boy in the world.” Lindström and Petri find an early, unsettling tone to start their film, and as Visconti searches through a crowd of hopeful youngsters, we can only hold our breath.
We’re introduced to Andresen the minute Visconti discovers him, thanks to an impressive selection of behind-the-scenes footage that will take us from screen test to filming to the wild Cannes premiere. Visconti is immediately taken with Andresen, gasping about how big he is for his age, relishing his glossy head of blond hair, and soon asking him to strip down to his underwear. You can see hints of the man Andresen will become, but at this moment he’s clearly a shy kid. Also obvious: his supreme discomfort.
Decades later, he still seems uncomfortable as we find an adult Andresen milling about his filthy kitchen. “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” slides between Andresen’s strange, fame-laden years and his current existence where he’s beset by apartment issues, personal disarray, and a growing sense that there’s so much he still needs to come to terms with in his life. “Death in Venice” brought fame, the sick attention, and a sense that he was simply something to consume, but the film also touches on Andresen’s complicated childhood and family life, including an unknown father and a tragic mother.
Andresen and the film’s many talking heads do their damndest to navigate terrible memories. All that archival footage does wonders as we observe Visconti’s mythologizing and obsession unfold. From the production of “Death in Venice” during which the filmmaker told the majority-gay crew to not even look at Andresen, all the better to keep him for himself to the “living nightmare” of a festival tour that saw the Swede picked over like a piece of meat (and worse), all of it stings. It’s meant to, even if the film and its makers refrain from finger pointing.
For all of the filmmakers’ obvious care and respect, late-breaking inclusions feel like gotcha moments in a story that has enough shocks already. Andresen’s daughter is introduced late (as is the telling of a key story of a tragedy that befell the family when she was small), while the filmmakers make early space for talking heads who seem superfluous (one helps illuminate Andresen’s impact on manga artists like her, an interesting note that gets far too much screen time). Andresen’s continued acting career — including an indelible role in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” — is only briefly referenced. It’s difficult to shake the sense that so much of Andresen’s story has not yet been told, but this is indeed a start for a life that’s still capable of much beauty.
“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the World Documentary Competition section. Juno Films will release the film in theaters in May 2021.