Directors: Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri
With The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri attempt earnestly to make a documentary about the pitfalls of exploiting the vulnerable for the sake of making art. Yet, in the process, fall into the self-same trap.
For modern audiences Björn Andresen is probably most recognisable as the old man who plunged to his death in Ari Aster’s cult horror Midsommar; a minor but memorable player in one of the stranger movies to have played multiplexes in recent years. But turn the clock back and there’s another story to tell.
In 1970, venerated Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti plucked a then-15-year-old Andresen out of school to become a movie star. The find marked the end of a supposedly years-long search by the director, who wanted the perfect boy to feature as Tadzio in his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice.
That story – and the resulting film – tells of a middle-aged composer who, while summering in Lido to recover from a disastrous performance, becomes infatuated with a beautiful child; a vision of perfection and innocence that ushers forth his inevitable decline. Visconti’s finished film is a haunting and disturbing lyrical masterpiece. It also became an international sensation. So too did it’s unprepared subject. When Visconti heralded young Andresen “the most beautiful boy in the world”, the title stuck. He became an international idol, hounded at every turn by adoring fans and paparazzi.
50 years on, Lindström and Petri catch up with Andresen to piece together the fragments of that heady time, sketching as they do a dark study of how such intense scrutiny and objectification impacted and created the man he has become. Back in Sweden living in relative penury, the Andresen depicted appears fragile and withdrawn; barely able to look after himself and struggling to maintain close relationships with either his girlfriend Jessica or his adult daughter Robine.
Lindström and Petri gather the pieces of their tale where they can as Andresen is clearly reticent to relive a traumatic time in his life. Seemingly in an effort to coax him, the filmmakers take him to places where these upsetting memories were made. He remains quiet and uncomfortable. The filmmakers frame Andresen in these spaces as a moody, thoughtful loner – an avatar of unspoken pain. These lingering set-ups feature heavily throughout the film, and come to feel just as leering and empty as the awkward photo shoots and screen tests Andresen was subjected to as a child. Only the intended tone differs.
Only by increments are we provided a wider view of Andresen’s other personal traumas; chiefly the disappearance and death of his mother prior to Death in Venice and, years later, the tragic loss of his second-born to SIDS, for which Andresen clearly holds himself personally responsible. A descent into alcoholism brought on by such tragedies blots out great portions of his memory, fogging much of the narrative that Lindström and Petri are searching for, and their efforts to trigger Andresen feel queasily manipulative. Having him read his mother’s post-mortem and cry in front of the camera feels not only voyeuristic but more than a little callous.
This has the effect of making Lindström and Petri feel like they’re perpetuating the same paparazzi gaze that has so haunted Andresen throughout this early life. In a similar way to Framing Britney Spears earlier this year, it’s hard not to find The Most Beautiful Boy in the World just as exploitative as those it eagerly decries. Intentionally or not, the portrait they’ve ended up with is of a man not-yet-ready to confront his past, lacking the necessary means to articulate his experiences and under uncomfortable pressure to try.
Perhaps these are the mistakes you make when you’re so-far into a project and realise that your subject isn’t up for it, or that what you had expected isn’t what you’ve discovered. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is drawn to mystique and the facades of celebrity, but also feels as though it has fallen under this spell. It’s a sad and murky piece of work.