Art films used to cross over into the mainstream more than they do now, though it still happens (just look at the success of “Parasite”). But even back in the heyday of art-house earthquakes like “Z” and “Last Tango in Paris,” there was something surreal about the crossover phenomenon of Björn Andrésen. He was the 15-year-old Swedish boy who director Luchino Visconti cast as the love object in “Death in Venice,” his 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novel, and for a time Andrésen blew up like a pop star. “Death in Venice” was a grand, slow-moving, and, to me, always rather stilted and awkward piece of lavish-souled literary adaptation. On the page, Mann had evoked the romantic and sensual obsession that his ailing autobiographical hero felt, from afar, for Tadzio, an adolescent he spies at the hotel he’s convalescing at on the Lido. In the movie, the hero’s fixation came down to Dirk Bogarde doing an endless amount of ardent staring. (We have to read his thoughts, which becomes heavy lifting.)
Yet the young actor he was staring at gave the picture its meaning. As a movie, “Death in Venice” was prose trying to be poetry, but Björn Andrésen truly looked like a human work of art. Tadzio is described in the novel as being like a god from Greek mythology — an ethereal statue of a boy, a figure out of dreams. And Andrésen, with his angelic features set off by a half-smile beneath a billowy burst of honey-blond hair, became that boy. He had an aura about him, a kind of metaphysically passive and androgynous teen-idol mystique merged with something timeless. You could say that he was a male version of Brooke Shields, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but she, from a young age, was a model (that was the context in which she was seen), whereas Andrésen, in “Death in Venice,” just seemed to appear like a force of nature, a forlorn blond dewdrop of antiquity.
“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is a documentary about the imagistic stardom he attained — and also about the man he is now, who is so different that you almost can’t fuse the two together in your mind. Made by the Swedish co-directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, it’s a small, impressionistic, oddly heartfelt movie about beauty, stardom, adoration, exploitation, and loss. Oh, is it ever about loss.
In his mid-60s now, with a long mane of scraggly gray hair, a gray beard, and a face that’s ravaged but still handsome in a ghostly, sunken-cheeked, and rather sunken-spirited way, Björn Andrésen looks today, from certain angles, like an aging Southern biker, from others like an aging Viking, and at times like someone posing for a Rembrandt painting. You have to look awfully hard at that face to see any direct echo of the incandescent pin-up he once was. You glimpse it in the eyes, which still have an exquisite quality of placid loneliness, though now it’s he who seems to have withdrawn from the world. He’s like a shell. The movie is about what hollowed him out.
For those who find “Death in Venice” a film of enduring fascination (and I count myself in that camp, even though I don’t think it’s a very good movie), “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” opens with a fulsome account, full of arresting archival footage, of how that film got made, and what it was like for Andrésen when it went out into the world. We see his impromptu screen test at a 1970 casting call in Stockholm that looks like a season opener of “American Idol”: dozens — hundreds — of boys, some disturbingly young, all showing up to audition for the great Visconti. Björn was the fifth or sixth kid the director saw, and right away he knew. Amazingly, even Björn’s hair was feathered in the exact way it would appear in “Death in Venice.” Visconti didn’t even try to restyle it, the logic being, Why mess with perfection?
The shooting of the film was relatively benign, though Visconti gave a strict order to the crew members, most of whom were gay, to not so much as look at Andrésen. We see clips of Visconti on the set, conservatively dressed and very full of himself, evoking his movie with statements like, “It’s neither sexual nor erotic. It’s a higher form of love — let’s say, perfection in love.” He spews this stuff by the yard. Visconti’s direction, according to Andrésen, came down to telling him four things: “Go! Stop! Turn around! And smile!”
On March 1, 1971, “Death in Venice” had its world premiere in London, in the presence of the Queen and Princess Anne. That night, Visconti declared Andrésen to be “the most beautiful boy in the world,” and the label stuck. As the documentary presents it, the real circus began at the Cannes Film Festival. We see plenty of footage of that, and you feel the swirl of eroticized excitement merging with the imprimatur of art. We see Visconti at the press conference, saying of Björn, in reference to his audition day, “He was more beautiful then.” He jokes that at 16, he’s already getting too old and tall.
Björn recalls the experience as having “swarms of bats around me,” and that’s a perfect description. He also recalls it as a “living nightmare,” and you wonder if he included Visconti among the bats. The night of the premiere, the director took him to a gay club, where Björn felt assaulted by the gazes. Then again, as much of a culture shock as this was, by the early ’70s plenty of pretty young stars — notably from the rock world — had been thrust into the limelight. Björn may have been beautiful, but he was basically a shy provincial teenager, and his alienated experience related every bit as much to his past: the mother who loved him erratically and then abandoned him, disappearing in 1966, when he was 11, until she was found dead in the woods. Björn went to live with his grandparents in Stockholm, but the damage had been done.
“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is not a chronological documentary. It jumps between snippets of Björn’s life — his time in Japan, where he recorded a teen-pop single and got fashioned into a manga icon, or the year he spent in Paris being paid by lascivious fat cats to show up as arm candy — and glimpses of Björn today, living in his humdrum apartment (which is as filthy as a hoarder’s until his girlfriend spends 10 days helping him clean it up), gradually showing us who he is. He’s a gifted musician; he became the father of two children; he appeared as one half of the old couple who commit clifftop suicide in “Midsommar” (we see scenes from that shoot); and then, finally, there’s the story of how he lost one of his children, which is enough to freeze you. It certainly froze Björn Andrésen. What’s mildly haunting about “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is that the film links beauty and tragedy in that ineffable way they’re linked in the story of Marilyn Monroe. Andrésen, looking back at his fluky moment of fame, seems to be contemplating the most beautiful boy from another world: an alternate universe in which he was plucked from obscurity and held up as a supreme object of desire, as if that transcended his identity. Did it terrify him, save him, mold him, or destroy him? All of the above.