Many people kind of roll their eyes whenever someone says something like, “beauty is a curse.” It’s instinctual, right? Like, how hard could it really be to be irresistibly attractive? The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is such a heartbreaking and effective documentary because it takes that very moniker, a statement of absolute beauty that should make life so much easier for the individual it has been bestowed upon and uncovers the incredible pain just beneath the surface. Beauty and exploitation often go hand in hand: once a society has decided to view someone as an object of physical perfection, they are no longer seen or treated as a human being. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World unflinchingly tackles this subject with great sensitivity as it highlights the tremendous damage inflicted on a child because of his looks.
Björn Andrésen was just fifteen years old when he caught the eye of director Luchino Visconti, who was then in the process of scouting beautiful young boys for the role of Tadzio in his upcoming film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The story is one that would raise more than a few eyebrows today: it details the growing obsession of a writer on vacation in Venice with Tadzio, a stunningly gorgeous local boy, overwhelmed by his physical perfection.
It reeks of child exploitation just on the page, and Visconti’s decision to direct a cinematic version feels questionable, to say the least. His hungry eyes drink in the veritable promenade of beautiful teen boys brought before him as part of a wide casting call and a deep sense of unease sets in. By the time Björn steps in for his audition, warning bells are going off in the minds of the audience. But for Björn, it’s only going to get worse.
It’s chilling to watch an underage teenager, a child, be put through an audition where he is ogled, objectified, and instructed to strip down to his underwear and pose while Visconti greasily compliments his appearance. He’s not protected by anyone in this audition — not the casting director, who should view it as their responsibility to provide a safe environment for auditioning minors, or by his guardian, a grandmother who is much too enthralled by the idea of having a famous grandson to object to the behavior directed at him here.
It’s an eviscerating commentary on the treatment of vulnerable youth in the entertainment industry. The lens has largely been focused on young girls manipulated by predatory Hollywood figures up until now. Still, here we are reminded that young boys are just as vulnerable to exploitation as their female counterparts. This is a reality our society is only beginning to reckon with over the past few years, as men have started to come forward about the sexual abuse they endured at the hands of filmmakers and powerful actors such as Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World adds to this conversation about exploitation.
When we see Björn as an adult, it’s immediately clear how much his experiences as a teen and young man traumatized him, compounding the issues from what had already been a difficult childhood. He spent most of his youth utterly failed by the adults around him, preyed upon by opportunistic and/or lascivious directors, managers, and fans. And by his own admission, they treated him so little like an actual human person that eventually, he stopped treating himself as one. What leads an individual to completely neglect their health, relationships, and even the sanitary conditions of their living space, if not a subconscious belief that you are unworthy of health, safety, and happiness?
But however poorly Björn may have treated himself in the past, documentarians Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri offer him nothing but dignity in telling his story. Tragically, they are probably among the only people who ever bothered to understand who Björn was as an individual and his own personal history aside from the few years when he was young and dubbed by Visconti the most beautiful boy in the world.
Björn’s story is a cautionary tale of the dark side of this obsession with beauty that pervades our culture and how badly innocent people can be hurt when others esteem their physical attributes so highly that they forget about their humanity. Granted, the fateful audition for Death in Venice that defined Björn’s life occurred in the 1970s, a time in which child protection, especially within the entertainment industry, was approached with a laissez-faire attitude. But the culture that allows predators to continue successful careers and young people to be taken advantage of is still pervasive. So as much as this documentary primarily focuses on a brief moment in time, the fleeting fame Björn received for his youth and beauty, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is also about the long ripple effects of harm committed against him and others like him, in the present as well as the past.