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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

'The Most Beautiful Boy in the World': The most confused documentary ever

Anna Falk | The Observer

I wasn’t eager to see “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.” It’s sold as the story of Björn Andrésen, who starred in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” at age 15, and how that director and that film destroyed him. I wasn’t eager to watch a cabal of Italian homosexuals and lecherous intellectuals exploit an innocent blond-haired and blue-eyed Swede for 90 minutes, which is what the trailer leads you to expect. To me, the documentary seemed like homophobic propaganda awkwardly repackaged in #MeToo aesthetics — it seemed not just revisionist, but actually regressive.

When I finally sat down to watch the thing, I felt vindicated. My predictions were confirmed — at least for the first 30 minutes.  The initial section of the documentary is filmed more like a horror movie. It jumps from archival footage of Visconti in Stockholm and on set to B-roll of Andrésen ominously backlit and wandering around an abandoned hotel. The female narrator speaks Swedish in a low, foreboding voice. The music is so sinister that sometimes it’s accidentally comical.

Would Visconti seem like such a villain if the archival footage wasn’t given the “American Horror Story” treatment? How would the viewer's feelings about him change if instead of a soundtrack à la “Psycho”, the score was more “Funiculì, Funiculà”? Who’s to say? Certainly, though, the production choices this movie makes prevent fair judgment of Visconti. This movie is disinterested in that — its only mission is villainizing him by any means necessary.

But then, remarkably, there’s a shift.

We leave the set of “Death in Venice,” we do the press junket, we finish the premiere, etc. What, then, occupies the final 60 minutes of the movie? Once all the slander is out of the way, we’re treated to a well-executed documentary — a touching and nuanced portrait of Björn Andrésen’s life.

There’s a great sequence filmed in Japan, for example. Andrésen returns to Tokyo (to the Imperial Hotel, the same one from “Lost in Translation”) to rehash his post-“Death in Venice” career as an idol. The film was so popular in Japan that it made this previously unknown Swedish 15-year-old an instant celebrity. And he wasn’t just an idol, he was the first idol.

To give us an idea of his impact, an interview with the artist behind the manga “The Rose of Versailles” reveals that Andrésen’s bone structure is a large part of why faces are drawn the way they are in anime. Another interview, one with Andrésen’s former Japanese manager, lets slip that he recorded several Japanese-language pop records. Then, we’re shown the gray-haired Andrésen of today singing his old singles alone in a karaoke bar.

This segment of the documentary is awesome. It balances the inherent zaniness of the situation with the ennui of a young star completely unprepared for his stardom and it does so without pointing fingers, without doing vague libel as a relevance-grab. There are plenty of other great segments too — moments between Andrésen and his sister, revelations about their mother, beautiful poetry and refined storytelling.

“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is tough to judge. If you compare a work like “Death in Venice,” a work overflowing with creativity, to a work like “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” which only exists to complain, the artwork triumphs over the piece of criticism. But when you remove the cheap jabs upward — the scapegoating of Visconti, his crew, Andrésen’s grandmother, etc. — “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is a sensitive portrayal of the tragedy of stardom.