Directors Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri position their assertions right up front—the late Luchino Visconti was a famous Communist homosexual—even before they say much about his reputation as one of the most revered filmmakers of all time. Most likely, they assume that anyone coming to see this biographical documentary about Bjorn Andresen, whom Visconti cast as the pre-adolescent object of desire in his 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, already knows a lot about Visconti and therefore they don’t see any point in doing much more than skimming over his greatest hits. But the first impression is that of a tabloid hit piece, and the movie isn’t that at all, despite its unabashed reliance on tabloid content.
It starts out exploitative enough. Andresen is seen walking through dilapidated hallways in the present day, a man of 66 with long, stringy hair and a full beard. On the soundtrack is sounds of him during his childhood, and then a quick cut to Stockholm in 1970, when he was discovered by Visconti, who, according to the film, ruined his life. The director had already spent months looking for a boy to play Tadzio, the Polish youth who in 1911 has come to the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice on holiday with relatives. He’s spied by the ailing, aging composer Aschenbach (supposedly based on Mahler), played by Dirk Bogarde, who immediately falls in love with him. In order to make this story not only believable but tragic, Visconti had to find “the most beautiful boy in the world,” though he focused on northern and eastern Europe and eventually came across the blonde Andresen. Fortunately for Lindstrom and Petri there is plenty of footage available about the meeting, since it involved a tortuous audition process in which Visconti got uncomfortably close to Andresen without actually becoming physical: Eventually, Andresen ends up in his underwear. In a sense this methodology was more practical than erotic, since Visconti wanted the boy to understand directly how the gaze of the doomed composer should be conveyed to the audience, as well as Tadzio’s role in what transpires. “He was a dictator,” Andresen says of Visconti in the present day.
Andresen was traumatized by Visconti’s leering demands, and you can see it in his eyes in the audition footage, a kind of excitement curdling into panic. For all intents and purposes, the documentary attempts to come to grips with that dynamic, and occasionally it strains for meaning where there really isn’t any. Suffice to say that while Visconti really did make Andresen a teen star, it was a qualified success, dependent first on how long he could hang on to his angelic looks, and second on his emotional fortitude and sense of agency. A good measure of self-pity enters into any conversation the directors have with Andresen as an adult: how he gave up his dreams of being a musician in order to pursue the life of a pinup; how he is still extending his proverbial 15 minutes of fame into his dotage; how his experience has convinced him that the world will soon end in cataclysm. His life is certainly in a shambles: a subplot shows him trying to fend off eviction.
The movie might have been more educational had it explored fully Andresen’s impact on popular culture. There’s a brief but compelling sequence in which the boy’s popularity in Japan is explored. Though he made several TV commercials that have since become classics of the Showa Era, his larger contribution was to the peculiar visual style of shojo manga, in particular The Rose of Versailles, which appropriated his facial contours and hair style for the princely hero, a template that persists to this day. Andresen’s main resentment is that he’s never made money from it. He also resents that Visconti effectively turned him into some sort of gay icon (which he equates with pedophilia) and is constantly stating his hetero bona fides, though he hasn’t necessarily had a happy love life. He seems to love alcohol more than sex or women.
But despite the salacious import of the documentary, it’s touching in its own strange way. It takes some effort to connect this bitter old man to the flawlessly pretty adolescent, and near the end, when we see him simply relaxing with his younger girlfriend you get it: He’s as much beholden to a manufactured image as we are to the idea that movies are their own version of truth, and we’re both wrong.
In Swedish, English, French, Japanese and Italian. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World home page in Japanese
photo (c) Mantaray Film AB, Sveriges Television AB, ZDF/ARTE, Jonas Gardell Produktion, 2021