The story of Björn Andrésen, the boy who played Tadzio

It had to be told, this story, because as Tadzio, the impossibly beautiful boy von Aschenbach dies for in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film version of Death in Venice, 15-year-old Björn Andrésen became an instant icon - an icon that weighed its innocent human original down for life. This is a mood piece and if you like that sort of thing, it's done well, with its intercutting of dark scenes from different periods with the tracing of a picture of Björn Andrésen man and boy that strangely overlaps in beauty and sadness.

There are not many revelations here. That's not the point. It may be a shock to see that Andrésen, a heavy smoker, in his mid-sixties now has a heavily lined face and a long grey beard. He looks curiously small, given that as a 15-year-old he looked tall for his age. But he still has a magnificent mane of hair, and there is a prettiness about him (he photographs well, and has some dash in a long black leather coat), and he seems always to have kept the same frail, ephebe body. So this is not one of those big bodily transformations.

It's a surprise to learn of how, a few years after Death in Venice, Andrésen somehow went to Japan and became a different pop culture icon there. His blond ephebe look was regarded as miraculous perfection. The delicate young male type is highly regarded in Japan; note the adulation in which the figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu is held, how the ice is showered with teddy bears in his honor every time he performs. A very pretty white version of the tyipe was even more exotic and wonderful. He was musically talented and so he became, incredibly, a pop star, learning to sing songs in Japanese. (He says he had a good accent.) In addition his looks inspired some very important manga and continue to fifty years later.

Filmmakers Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri invade Andrésen's life. We begin with his first interview and screen test with Visconti, who had apparently been contemplating Death in Venice and searching for a Tadzio for years, a boy with the appropriate chilly perfection. He knows when he sees Andrésen that he's the one. But he is an astonishingly brutal, crude man. His response is more predatory than worshipful. Later at Cannes, where the film became world-renowned, Andrésen is there beside Visconti at the press conference, but happily spared the director's mean joke about how the boy's already past his prime because Visconti expresses it in French, which he does not know. These old films show how the sensitive boy was hurt by the process that made him famous, preparing the way for the further hurt of the fame itself and a life of little success and much unhappiness.

At the same time, in parallel, the film shows us the dark mess of the man's current life, unreeling images of a bossy girlfriend who later breaks up with him on the phone but helps him clean up an apartment that's such a pigsty the rental board is threatening expulsion. Later still, it becomes clear that Andrésen's alcoholism, in his thirties, wrecks his marriage and in his view led to the death of his young son. The grownup daughter, seen now, seems okay.

As the film moves along it unearths the roots of sadness in a tragedy involving his mother that occurred years before Andrésen became Tadzio. And the casting itself might not have happened, and Andrésen instead saved from a fame he wasn't strong enough to deal with, had it not been for a pushy grandmother.

The art of the filmmakers is of the manipulative kind. They enter into Andrésen's apartment and film him with his girlfriend and the apartment hassle. They film him with his daughter, and one feels they are performaing for the closeup camera. They take him to Japan: this is well done, because they find someone who produced him as a singer, and the chief manga artist who cannibalized his looks. They take him to Paris because at 20 he was kept in an apartment there for a year and feted and shown off by various rich gay men; he recognizes today this was a naïve mistake and he let himself be exploited. Alas, he lacked reliable family support to protect him from such exploitation. They take him to Venice, to revisit scenes of the film.

Despite handsome, atmospheric photography and good editing and useful travel, this is a depressing, unpleasant film. It's a sad story and though Andrésen as Tadzio remains the iconic beautiful boy (Visconti made no mistake in the casting) sadly also the film to me has always seemed uniquely false and maudlin and somehow a lie, confusing the tragic with the tacky, masking as a pursuit of ideal beauty what appears to all intents and purposes to be a pathetic unfun example of unfulfilled pederasty. Whether or not this confusion is better resolved in Mann's novella, Visconti seems out of his element, and this a flashy but unconvincing film, a sign of his decline.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, 93 mins., mainly in Swedish, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021, showing at about a dozen other international festivals, releasing online in the US Sept. 24, 2021.