Björn Andrésen had no idea who “the great Luchino Visconti” was when the Palme d’Or-winning director arrived in Stockholm on a bitterly cold day in February 1970. Visconti had been feted by the film world for decades for works such as Ossessione (1949) and The Leopard (1963).
He was an Italian count, openly gay at a time when this carried considerable risk, and a former flame (he would later claim) of the last king of Italy. And he had come to the city looking for “perfect beauty in a boy” for his next film, an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Mann’s novella is about a writer who becomes obsessed with a boy he sees by chance in a hotel beside the Adriatic. Visconti would make his central character a composer but, as the atmospheric new documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World reveals, he had searched for years for the source of his obsession – in Hungary, Poland, Finland and Russia. In Sweden, his search was to end.
The boy in the book, Tadzio, was 14. Andrésen was 15, a semi-orphan, who didn’t know his father and whose mother had vanished and was later found dead in woodland, having taken her own life. He was living with his grandparents, and had already filmed one movie, A Swedish Love Story, in which he’d ridden around on a red motorbike as one of the film’s gang of teenagers and had “great fun”, he says, when we talk via videocall. His luxurious grey locks and beard make him as visually striking now as he must have appeared to Visconti that day in 1970; his black humour is ever-present.
Andrésen had been sent along by a casting agency to meet Visconti, who was about to change his life. He remembers the “eagle nose and the sharp gaze” and the way the director imposed respect on those around him. The meeting was filmed, and the documentary captures the shock on the boy’s face when Visconti proclaims, “Beautiful! Ask him to undress.” More than half a century later, Andrésen recalls how an assistant had been sent out to buy him swimming trunks so that he could be filmed wearing them.
Did he feel vulnerable, exposed? “Who wouldn’t?” he says. “It was, honestly, unpleasant.” I wonder if it gives him an insight into how young women have perhaps felt in the film industry since it began. “Feeling objectified? I know a little about it myself, so they have all my sympathy.”
It was the start of a whirlwind. Visconti had his Tadzio. Andrésen would travel to Venice that summer to shoot the film, opposite Dirk Bogarde as his enraptured observer (some would say stalker). Bogarde was “socially pleasant, the first one to pronounce my name properly” he recalls. Visconti, meanwhile – “everybody in the team, they were afraid of him.
Once, one of them went past the camera when he was looking to see the shot and he went into a total rage. Everybody stood petrified.” He notes that Visconti had warned his largely gay crew: “Not even one single gaze on the boy.” Does he think Visconti saw himself in the central character of von Aschenbach? “Yes,” he says. “I do.”
People argue to this day whether von Aschenbach's reverence for Tadzio's beauty is a sublimation of his sexual desire for the boy, but Andresen insists that Visconti's feelings towards him were not sexual but aesthetic.
When the film had its premiere in London, Andrésen soon felt the force of the words Visconti used about him to the press: “the most beautiful boy in the world” – a description that it seems will never leave him. It set in motion the sort of fevered attention that would later take him to Japan, where he was idolised and had a brief pop career, and to Paris, a period in which he was supported by wealthy men and came to see himself as a “wandering trophy… big game”.
“It felt like swarms of bats around me, pretty much all the time. It was a living nightmare,” Andrésen says in the film. At one point, during the Cannes Film Festival, Visconti took him to a gay club, where he felt unprotected, and leered at.
Was there sexual harassment? “I didn’t even know what sexual harassment was,” he says. “It was just extremely unpleasant, excruciating.”
In Japan he was expected to do multiple public appearances a night. “They gave me two or three red pills that were meant to make me feel better,” he says in the film. “What was it, amphetamine?” his girlfriend Jessica asks. “I’ve no idea,” he responds. “It’s goddamn child abuse,” she declares.
There were some good things that came out of the experience: travel, meeting fascinating people. But the documentary says Andrésen’s role in Death in Venice also led to alcoholism and depression. At the start of the film, we see Andrésen clearing out his revoltingly squalid rented apartment following a threat of eviction, made after he left the gas oven on. Later, we learn that his baby son died while Andrésen was sleeping off a drinking session beside him. The coroner’s verdict was “sudden infant death syndrome”.
He drank at first, he tells me, to control the anxiety his fame caused him in social situations, and later to keep his sanity. Does he think he would have had a happier life if he had never walked into that room with Visconti on that day in 1970? “I don’t wish to have a happier life,” he says. “My life was screwed up really from the beginning [after his mother’s suicide]. It was chaos. I would have liked a little more order, but happiness? I’ve been happy.”
In its way, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s documentary is as powerful an exploration of beauty, obsession and death as Visconti’s movie itself. Death in Venice got in the way of Andrésen’s hoped-for life as a musician, he believes, but he has built a career as an actor. He can be seen playing a tribal elder who suffers a shockingly violent fate in Ari Aster’s ritual folk horror Midsommar.
I wonder if Aster had it in mind to smash the face of the most beautiful boy in the world. “Oh, I never thought of that,” he says, then laughs. “Ari, you sick, sick man.”
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is out in cinemas on July 30