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Living in the Aftermath of Death in Venice

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Though you may not know the name Björn Andrésen, you may well recall his face. In Ari Aster’s 2019 film, Midsommar, he played the elderly man with long, gray hair who participates in the Harga community’s terrifying clifftop “Ättestupa” ritual. This scene, which marks the moment that Midsommar turns unbearably gory, is elevated by Andrésen’s elegance; his few lines are mostly hummed, but with his rangy El Greco limbs and the way his hair floats upward when he falls, Andrésen brings to Midsommar a quality one can only call grace.

Now 66, Andrésen remains best known for the natural beauty he possessed as an adolescent boy. In a new documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri tell the story of his overnight transformation from lonely teenager into screen icon in 1971, when director Luchino Visconti cast him as the exemplar of adolescent male beauty in his movie Death in Venice. The film framed him as the object of adult desire and offered him up for consumption in the boundaryless, taboo-busting entertainment market of 1971—an experience that had devastating effects on Andrésen’s self-esteem. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a rare exploration of the consequences of objectification on the psyche of a young male actor, and an exorcism of the ghosts that have followed him.

Luchino Visconti, who also conducted opera, was a patriarch of Italian cinema whose 1943 film Ossessione is usually cited as the first Italian neorealist film. He was 64—two years younger than Andrésen is now—when he went out looking for the leading boy for his upcoming adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Visconti had by 1970 renounced the austerity that characterized his youthful works and begun making films that delight the senses. In Senso (1954), The Leopard (1963), and The Damned (1969), European aristocrats disintegrate in ways both nihilistic and highly picturesque, all filmed in color, their sets adorned with velvet, silk, palm fronds, and mustaches.

Death in Venice would be the culmination of this tendency in later Visconti. Thomas Mann’s original 1912 novella follows an intellectual named Gustave von Aschenbach, who goes on holiday in Venice to........

© New Republic

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