By the end of 1960 you could have credibly argued that the world’s greatest active film directors were the Italian trio of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, each of whom had just released an astonishing, game-changing film: L’avventura, La dolce vita and Rocco and His Brothers, respectively. All three would retain guru-like high status particularly through the end of that decade. Though by ’69 there would be a lot of competing other Greatest Directors, each with their own fervent devotees—cinephilia was like a religion then, the endlessly-discussed medium of preference in a culturally and politically progressive, secular era.
Somewhat encumbered by expectations (and the money being thrown at them), these reigning celluloid artistes from the land of that other Michelangelo ended the Sixties with projects about decadence—but also reflecting it. Fellini delivered the ancient orgies of Satyricon. Antonioni birthed Zabriskie Point, an abstract indictment of his benefactor America. Visconti let loose The Damned, which aimed to trump them both by taking on Nazis. But he was too much the aristocrat to see that “ultimate evil” in more than dress-up, soap-operatic terms, however stylistically heavy on the “opera” part.
Released when controversy and enthusiasm in celluloid sex, violence, and arthouses was at a giddy peak, Visconti’s X-rated film (back when that meant little more than “boobs and blood”) was a big hit, eventually generating the whole kinky Nazisploitation cycle that would encompass The Night Porter, Salon Kitty, and myriad cheaper concoctions. (It also had arguably the greatest movie poster ever: Helmut Berger in full Marlene Dietrich drag, with the slogan “He would soon be the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany.”) But its controversies wearied the director, and perhaps he realized it was a personal worst—a work of borderline, elephantine vulgarity from a refined sensibility.
Ergo the semi-retreat into 1971’s Death in Venice, another expensive, complicated international production, but becalmed, meditative, even funereal. Thomas Mann’s novella was not obvious screen material, but it seemed well-suited to Visconti—certainly more so than Camus’ The Stranger, which he had been entirely the wrong director for four years prior. Dirk Bogarde, one of the era’s greatest actors, was an inspired choice as Aschenbach, the ailing German bachelor whose intended recuperation in Venice during an officially unacknowledged cholera epidemic is lent further pathos by his obsession with a beautiful, oblivious teen, the scion of a wealthy Polish family also visiting here. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Aschenbach—his ridiculous hair-dye and make-up attempts at youthfulness melting in the fetid heat—expires trying to reach a celestial body that has scarcely noticed him.
But who would play Tadzio, the object of this closeted homosexual amour fou (or elevated worship of an aesthetic ideal, if you prefer)? Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri’s new documentary begins with rather creepy footage of the famously aristocratic, Communist, openly gay director in Stockholm amidst a multinational tour in search of The Most Beautiful Boy in the World—as he’d later call Bjorn Andresen, the 15-year-old found there. Dragged to this audition by the grandmother who raised him, the lad had androgynous features (reminiscent of Bjork, Milla Jovovich, or Dominique Sanda) and dramatic waves of blond hair. He spoke no Italian, and Visconti no Swedish, yet soon the youth was down to his underwear, being poked, prodded, and endlessly photographed. Which must have seemed weird. And it never stopped seeming weird, apparently.
Boy deals all too briefly with the Venice shoot itself; there is behind-the-scenes footage in which Andresen seems to be enjoying himself, like any kid on a glorified school holiday. But he did not quite comprehend the scale of the enterprise he was involved in until the finished film’s Cannes premiere. At that point there commenced a huge storm of public attention that a half-century later he calls “a living nightmare…like this surreal membrane separating you from the rest of the world.” His sudden but shallow fame was, like Aschenbach’s regard, entirely surface-based and objectifying. When he traveled to Japan, where Venice had particular cultural impact, he was treated like a teen idol, made to sing pop songs and appear in TV commercials. That’s more than any adolescent should have to handle, let alone one who was parentless (his mother died under mysterious circumstances when he was small, his father remains unknown) and had little prior performance experience.
Now a bony, long-haired, bearded old man who’s introduced at risk of being thrown out of his dilapidated apartment, Andresen still seems broken by that early onslaught of too much, too soon. He was uneasy with the gay-jailbait aura the movie lent him—though he’s evasive about a later stint in Paris where he seems to have been supported by gay admirers. To the extent that the blanks are filled in, we glean his last 50 years were marked by depression, alcohol, self-destruction, and self-loathing.
What else filled that time is left exasperatingly obscure, though we learn he was married for a time and fathered two children. (One died of SIDS; the other now says, “In theory, he’s an amazing dad. But in practice, it just doesn’t work.”) If you look on the Internet Movie Database, it’s clear he’s done a fair amount of film and TV work, even if the sole project noted here is a short but memorable part in Ari Arister’s Midsommar two years ago. (He was the old man whose ritual suicide leap proves a painful failure.)
What happened to his interest in music, which he’d originally planned to make a career of? Not idly, either—we hear a tape of him playing Chopin with impressive finesse. And what’s happening now, with the girlfriend who helps him get his act together so he’s not evicted, then later threatens to dump his “paranoid geezer” ass? The film doesn’t even bother to mention some major external trivia, like the long-term bad mouthing of Visconti’s lover-protege Helmut Berger, who coveted the Tadzio role himself (though he was far too old) and had his petty revenge by reportedly later spreading rumors that Andresen had died as a junkie.
Pretentious and rather humorless, The Most Beautiful Boy has that quality of voyeurism a documentary acquires when it seems to be exploiting a subject’s apparent misery without really providing insight into it. We can’t be sure from Andresen whether he’s a tragically fragile soul (as the movie implies) or just an aging manboy mired in self-pity, using events of long ago as a permanent excuse not to create a whole, adult self. Thus the film ultimately hangs somewhere between enigmatic and frustrating. Still, if it’s not a great movie, it remains a fascinating footnote, simply because Visconti’s Death in Venice—whether you love it or hate it—is impossible to forget. The documentary opens Fri/24 at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Another kind of male ideal is the subject of I’m Your Man, a German romcom of sorts by actress turned writer-director Maria Schrader. Alma (Maren Eggert) is an academic researcher who agrees to test-drive a singular product: Tom (Dan Stevens), a “humanoid robot” customized to her preferences as an ideal companion. He can quote Rilke on command, do long division in an eyeblink, dance a somewhat excessively accomplished rumba, and is no doubt dynamite in the sack—though Alma refrains from finding out in a hurry.
Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why she has volunteered to be one of 10 people spending a three-week trial period with such entities. While he can adjust his algorithms to suit her taste, she’s irritated by his pitching cornball woo (“Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into”), his mansplaining (even if, yes, he does have the entire world’s knowledge at his disposal), and the very idea that a machine might somehow fill her emotional needs, even just for a moment or two. Tom doesn’t quite grasp humor, but he is programmed to be empathetic, thus quickly sussing her hidden wounds and needs—which she also resents.
Stevens of Downton Abbey and Legion fame played a more sinister variation on “the perfect man” a few years ago in thriller The Guest, in which he also signaled something a tad alien by seldom blinking. That was a great performance. This one is just OK, because the script doesn’t make anything more of Tom than a gimmick.
This concept has been seen before, in variations ranging from ’80s comedy Making Mr. Right to Ex-Machina, the latter of which took the more familiar sci-fi thriller tact of making an artificial “perfect woman” both alluring and lethal. Probably the single closest predecessor to Stevens’ role is Jude Law’s robo-gigolo in Spielberg’s A.I. But that figure had an eerie pathos that underlined humanity’s own frailty, and I’m Your Man is a mere bon-bon by comparison. The subplots involving Alma’s ex-lover and senile father don’t add enough depth; a suggestion that Tom might somehow have “soul” (or, like Pinocchio, be capable of gaining one) never rises above the genre conventions this movie nonetheless hopes to transcend.
Schrader’s film is pleasant enough, but it seems nuts that this middleweight diversion should already be Germany’s Oscar submission feature for 2022—surely that nation already has, or will, do better before the year is up. I’m Your Man opens at theaters including the Embarcadero this Fri/23, then goes to On Demand and digital platforms October 12.