“An absolutely sublime cinema experience, and one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” is what I wrote in my journal after first seeing Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Such rhapsodic terms I did not anticipate using. In fact I expected a cold, overly intellectual piece of cinema, knowing that Thomas Mann – the author of the film’s source novel – can be that way sometimes, his work preoccupied with a veneer of the old-fashioned.
But I probably should have known better, for the two artists share an affinity. Many of the questions which plagued Mann also became preoccupations of Visconti: what is the cost of the art life? What is the creator’s responsibility? What price might be paid when the debts of a decadent society are collected? Tasked with adapting the renowned Mann novel, Visconti used these common concerns as his bridge into the material, transmogrifying convoluted and haughty intellectual questions into a figurative cinematic style.
Therein lies the power of the film: it’s literary in theme and completely cinematic in execution. “It’s a story of love, pure love,” says Visconti, “a love which is not at all sexual, nor erotic. It’s a higher love.” I was overwhelmed by this higher love. I was overwhelmed by the sensibility. I was overwhelmed by the film’s richness, its pleasure principle, and its ultimate devotion to an issue harkening back to Greek antiquity: that of beauty as a moral problem.
I was also overwhelmed by Tadzio, played by 15-year-old Swedish actor Björn Andrésen, who constitutes the soul of the film and novel. A Polish adolescent staying at the Grand Hôtel des Bains at the same time as the sickly Gustav von Aschenbach – a writer in the book, a composer in the film (played by Dirk Bogarde) – Tadzio catches the eye of the ailing artist during his convalescence by the Lido. This object of “godlike beauty”, as Mann writes, with “the head of Eros [and] the yellowish bloom of Parian marble”, is so compelling and beguiling a vision to Aschenbach, who has lost faith in his own ability to produce the sort of beautiful art he used to create, that the result is obsession. This obsession leads to Aschenbach’s total physiological deterioration. The epicene beauty of the boy quite literally consumes and destroys him.
Andrésen is one of the most inspired pieces of casting in film history. Consider another of Mann’s descriptions of the boy:
“Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity.”
That Visconti found such a preternaturally perfect embodiment of Mann’s lethal adolescent can only be described as miraculous, so much so that the documentary about the casting process, titled Alla ricerca di Tadzio (trans. In Search of Tadzio, 1970), is in parts just as compelling as the feature film it chronicles. Andrésen is unutterably stunning; he knows it, Aschenbach knows it, and Visconti knows it. This is perhaps why, along with being one of the most aptly-cast characters ever, Tadzio is also amongst the most purely objectified. What Visconti makes of Andrésen in the film is so abject that at times it verges on utter callousness.
A new documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (2021), directed by Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström, attempts to reverse somewhat the superficial lionising against which Andrésen was, for many years, powerless to defend himself. That’s the problem with beauty: for better or for worse, it’s inarguable. At such a young age, there was simply no way Andrésen could have anticipated the formidable burden his looks would assign him. Nor could he have known that the film would permanently taint his life, that its scars would remain stinging, even still, fifty long years after its release.
“Film can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them; using not what they do, but who they are.” Thus spoke Robert Bresson, in what appears to also constitute a foundational argument for Lindström and Petri’s film. Yet Bresson’s penchant for the anonymity of non-actors is a far cry from the highly specific, embodied fame which befell Andréson in the aftermath of Death in Venice. Expectations for the film were low, and it was kept in almost clandestine repute, such was the radioactivity of its subject matter. That is, until it burst forth from secrecy and became somewhat of an event. (I was shocked to discover that the Queen herself – yes, the English one – attended the premiere.) Its young star was suddenly catapulted into international renown, the effects of which were variform.
When we first encounter Andrésen in the documentary, he has fallen so far from the perch of fame that we can only rub our eyes in disbelief. Gone, long gone, is the golden-haired Adonis, the effigy of pure Hellenic gorgeousness; in its place, a bearded, gravel-voiced, chain-smoking sallow old man, living in a decrepit Stockholm apartment which he co-inhabits with a group of carpet roaches. The squalor in which he lives, we see, expands beyond his physical home; it is a life of loneliness, of spiritual destitution, of layers of scarring so inextricable that he seems to resemble a kind of web of suffering. In an early scene he is being threatened with eviction; his lassitude in the face of the ordeal speaks to the tired spirit he carries with him. As a result, Andrésen appears a kind of hostage to the film; the story of his rise and fall is told begrudgingly, with a reticence, a hesitation. After what he calls the “living nightmare” which was his experience at Cannes in 1971, Andréson was dollied about to capitalise on his fame. Most notably, he was shipped to Japan, where he was instructed to shoot advertisements, coaxed into taking a couple of red pills while doing so, and even made into a pop singer, recording an album of songs in Japanese. (His voice is, unsurprisingly, mellifluous.)
In telling the tale of his life after Venice – note that Visconti, quite incredibly, is not mentioned a single time after the half-hour mark – it seems clear that Lindström and Petri wished desperately to circumvent the depersonalised objectification in which the Italian director imprisoned the young Andrésen. But they therefore cannot tell any part of his tale without Andrésen’s involvement, even though for most of the film the bearded old man seems weary, depressed, and uninterested in rehabilitating his image. When others are leaned on for perspective – his handler from the Death in Venice set, the Japanese record producer with whom Andrésen collaborated – all we retrieve as an audience is yet another superficial, outsider’s view of Andrésen’s tragic fate.
The result, much to the film’s detriment, is that it ends up constituting, at heart, a kind of pornography of suffering. Where once young Andrésen became the object of pure Dionysian attraction, he now becomes another type of object: an object of pity. We still look upon him peripherally, and can only regard with dismay, and from an unsurpassable distance, that into which he has devolved. The film’s attempts to reclaim Andrésen’s autonomy, mostly in staged “cinematic” sequences full of slow-motion and dark colouring and visual metaphor, come across as unearned and overly deliberated, not to mention proselytising. Only when the film begins delving into the story of Andrésen’s mother do we feel as though it knows what to do with itself.
Yes; many viewers will leave the film with the somewhat justified impression that it’s actually a story about Andrésen’s mother and the impact of the maternal presence (or, in this case, absence) on the development of the young man. She committed suicide when he was 10, leaving him in the safekeeping of his devious grandmother who was by and large the authority figure responsible for goading Andrésen into auditioning for Visconti – because, in Andrésen’s words, she “wanted a famous grandson.” Yet his mother also left a certain unclosable breach in Andrésen’s heart, and his personal development, already so compromised by the fact of never knowing who his father was, is further obstructed. The resulting man, at the age of sixty-six, lacks autonomy and self-sufficiency. Without the help of his girlfriend, we feel he probably would have been evicted from the squalid apartment and thrown out on the street.
The scene in which the gaunt and maudlin Andrésen reads the autopsy report of his own mother’s death is utterly disturbing, and casts an unmissable pall of dismay over the rest of the film. Regardless, the directors deem it fit to punctuate this tragic discovery with the story of Andrésen’s failed marriage and descent into alcoholism. A key part of this story is the death of Andréson’s son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which befell the child as his drunken father was passed out beside him. This is what I mean by pornography of suffering: a gratuitousness viewed not from a perspective of empathy, but of voyeuristic pity.
Indeed, the film is unmistakably eerie, haunted; a spectre of death hangs over everything and everyone within it. This is not entirely coincidental. When asked what drew him to Mann’s book, material he’d been obsessing over for many years, Visconti cited the aspect of “intellectual death” which it unearths. “To put the eyes on beauty is to put the eyes on death,” he says. Mann himself describes Tadzio, in the book’s final scene, as “the pale and lovely Summoner”; the dialectic at play within the novel is rooted in the conflict between the act of creation and the possibility of danger. What has resulted for Andréson transcends Aschenbach’s demise. Andréson, a husk of a man, is now fated to wander the earth lonely and defeated. His youthful, radiant hyperborean looks have withered into wispy white hair, a gaunt face, and lugubrious eyes. Is this, the film asks, how we want to treat our fellow man? Are we content to slurp him up through the straw of mass media, admire the taste for a little while, and then pitilessly spit him out?
Except, in a way, this is the wrong question. “What is the price of great art?” is the question that Death in Venice, both book and film, poses to its audience; it is the more interesting question, and the one which Lundström and Petri refuse to ask. It is a quandary which dates back to the cult art of the Egyptians, to the Greek myths of 400 B.C. There is no question that Andréson’s vitality was exploited and totally sapped, that he was unfit to defend himself, that Visconti was showered with praise for his stunning cinematic achievement while Andréson’s lifeforce eroded. We are left with two films, two pieces of art, which in a terrible way are now the purpose of Andréson’s life. So – was that purpose a higher one?
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World screened on MIFF Play as part of the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival.
Elroy Rosenberg is a Elroy Rosenberg is a writer and louche layabout living in Melbourne. elroyrosenberg.com