In 1971, after being cast in legendary filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, 15-year-old Björn Andrésen was thrust into international fame after the director declared him “the most beautiful boy in the world.” It’s a title that has weighed on the actor ever since, at once an impossible title to live up to and a kind of brand that hung over the wounded teenager’s life like a cloud. Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström’s documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World seeks to explore the lingering effects of its subject’s eponymous designation, while simultaneously examining the generational ramifications of trauma and depression. Andresen was already a troubled young man by the time he met Visconti, having lost his mother only shortly before. He was thrust into the spotlight by his grandmother, eager to reap the vicarious benefits of fame. Cast as an object of unattainable queer desire in Death in Venice, a symbol of untouchable beauty at only 15 years old, Andrésen soon found himself turned into an international sex symbol, all before being discarded by the very system of entertainment that brought him white-hot fame. The early scenes of Andrésen as a cherubic yet awkward teen being examined by Visconti and his casting team — ogled, fawned over, and asked to strip to his underwear to be photographed — are incredibly difficult to watch, even without the context of the lingering trauma it would cause the young man.
Much of the film is devoted to the elder Andréson, now in his 60s, his youthful beauty long since faded and replaced by a haggard weariness, as he navigates his daily life; fighting an eviction challenge, facing a breakup, searching for his father, and learning the circumstances of his mother’s death. With his once famous visage now hidden behind a scraggly gray beard, Andréson seems haunted by his past, still unable to fully come to grips with the way he was taken advantage of and preyed upon by much older men. While his story does not include any direct physical abuse, the almost sanctioned way he was so blatantly exploited as a teenager is still deeply unsettling, and despite Visconti’s insistence that Anderson’s Lolita-like character was never intended as an object of sexual desire, Most Beautiful Boy makes clear the very real objectification the young actor faced.
If the film trends toward meandering in its middle stretch, what remains most remarkable about The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is its deep sense of empathy for its subject. It’s a film marked by profound sadness, and while it doesn’t really offer any real illumination into who Andrésen really is, what Petri and Lindström convey is that this is, in no small part, because Andrésen doesn’t really know either. Instead, he remains “the most beautiful boy in the world,” saddled with a moniker he never asked for and the heavy burden it still imposes. This beautiful boy is a person Andrésen clearly no longer recognizes, and Petri and Lindström frame his tragedy as a casualty of show business, a boy beset from the beginning with this impossible standard and cruelly cast aside as his beauty faded. Rarely has such a small story felt so achingly consequential.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.