Nick Broomfield on Muses and Bohemian Memories in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

By Alci Rengifo

Nick Broomfield is now 71 years old, and while he has not lost the feisty, investigative energy of a born muckraker, he is now continuously traveling back into the past. In his memories, two figures have been manifesting themselves as of late: Leonard Cohen, poet, songwriter, almost mystical icon and Marianne Christine Ihlen, Cohen’s muse whom he first encountered on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s. Broomfield’s new documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, chronicles not only Cohen’s development as an artist but his more intimate self as well, and the love affair that stayed with him until the very end.

I meet Broomfield in an office somewhere in Hollywood, where the sun is beginning to glisten with the same intensity with which it shone on those Grecian beaches long ago. In one of his first, magnificent songs, “Suzanne,” Cohen describes the sun as it “pours down like honey.” That’s not quite the case but close when Broomfield walks in, looking friendly and inviting. I let him know his 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, where he scours Los Angeles chasing leads claiming Courtney Love might have had something to do with the suicide of her iconic husband Kurt Cobain, made quite the impact on me as a pre-teen discovering the art of documentary filmmaking. I even wrote a revival piece about it for my high school newspaper. “I hope that worked out,” says Broomfield. So far it has. But now, let us discuss his work of evocative remembrances.

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Marianne Ihlen, her son Axel, and Leonard Cohen

Marianne & Leonard focuses on the late 60s when Cohen, a native from Quebec, traveled to the island of Hydra with dreams of becoming a writer. At the time the spot was a sumptuous getaway for bohemians and artists. The sexual revolution was beginning and for a brief moment a unique form of sexual openness seemed to prevail. At Hydra, Cohen, then in his late 20s, meets Marianne, who sought personal renewal along with her young son Axel. While enjoying the sun-bathed landscapes, Cohen writes his infamous, hallucinatory novel Beautiful Losers and develops a love affair with Marianne. She provides a unique bond which results in inspiration for his emerging work. He soon departs for Montreal and the novel is savaged by critics. Cohen then decides to explore music, and after singing “Suzanne” to Judy Collins she is so impressed she encourages Cohen to record. As he maintains a link to Marianne, Cohen finds fame and success, becoming a defining composer of prose and song. Yet he is a man soon swept up by his own emotional journeys, taking on many lovers, spending endless time on the road, and slowly leaving Marianne behind. In the sidelines of this romance a young Nick Broomfield heard and knew about its details through his own connection to Marianne. She would inspire the song “So Long, Marianne” with the wistful lines:

Now so long, Marianne
It’s time that we began to laugh
And cry and cry and laugh about it all again

Like few recent documentaries about iconic cultural figures, Marianne & Leonard has the unique feature of the director being so personally involved with the subject. Broomfield was a student in his early 20s also hanging around Hydra. He met Marianne, and by his own account became a brief lover as well. “When they [Marianne and Leonard] suddenly died in 2016 and had been such an influence on my work and formation as an artist, I really wanted to revisit that part of my life. One of the things that happens is you move on so quickly with your own career and life, that very significant things and people get left behind in your wake in a way,” says Broomfield. “With Marianne there were so many significant conversations that I wish I had with her that I never had. I also wanted to reconnect with other people that we shared in common from Hydra. I had so many memories, and the photographs I put in the film, also a lot of letters that I never managed to find, not being the most organized of people. But it was interesting to make something very different from what I had done before, and very romantic.”

The early passages of the documentary feel like a hazy trip back to a more bohemian era, as that generation of artists coming of age in a post-World War II generation forged their own culture. Cohen had become a protégé of the Canadian poet Irving Layton, and Layton’s widow appears on camera reminiscing on the times and warning that it’s never been easy being the wife of a poet. A profile also emerges of Cohen as natural wordsmith who came from a family where depression hovered in the genetic tree. Raised in the Jewish upper class, he nonetheless took on a more wandering persona, searching for spiritual and human discoveries. It seemed for a moment that Marianne would be a beacon of true love. “I was a student of 20 in my first year at university studying law, and I did get very swept off my feet when I met Marianne and this whole exotic world. I think there were moments where I felt fairly inadequate and overwhelmed with it all,” remembers Broomfield. So emotionally intense was the period that he admits, “It was almost a relief in a way when Marianne went off to see Leonard in New York and we were not kind of lovers, because I could get on with my simpler existence.”

“It was a rather stimulating and also traumatic period. Change is always traumatic. Making this brought those kinds of thoughts, but also recognizing how formative it had been in my own development. It was also great to discover what that kind of love can do, in recognizing how much she gave to me…and rediscovering the referential place she had for Leonard.” One of the documentary’s most haunting, brief moments is a photograph Broomfield took of Marianne at the time, and we see the blonde muse seeming to stare off, her eyes wondering what will come. “He was the greatest thing that happened in her life, even though it brought her a lot of pain as well.” It is a side of Broomfield we rarely see in his films or press reputation. A filmmaker who has made insightful if slightly sensational takes on Sarah Palin and Courtney Love, daring investigations into famous murders like Biggie & Tupac, and profiles of disturbed lives like Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Broomfield tells Cohen and Marianne’s story with an endearing simplicity, allowing the subjects to speak often for themselves via archival footage.

As a love story, Marianne & Leonard, edited with its dreamy tones, is about one of the most wrenching, in a sense tragic forms of bonding, which is through distances. After Cohen released his masterful 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, the life of a traveling troubadour absorbs him. Immersed in the era’s drug experimentation, having trysts with figures like Janis Joplin, Cohen comes across in old interviews as maybe a bit selfish, but also attempting to fill a void. Listeners are seduced by the eloquent honesty of his prose, the sadness in sensuous phrases. Obviously high on stage in Jerusalem, in another show introducing “So Long, Marianne” while wondering if she’s out in the audience, Cohen was a poet forever followed by his memories.

But the documentary is also a chronicle of that entire generation, and the less-mentioned aftershocks of a time when full sexual liberation seemed at hand. Marianne’s son Axel would grow up into a portrait of depression, constantly institutionalized. Other Hydra denizens of the time concede that was common with the children of artists who flocked to the spot and be swinging, belle epoque libertines. “Maybe people will have a lot more understanding of their parents,” Broomfield says with a wise grin. “I hope understanding rather than judgement. It’s very easy to judge one decade with the values of another. But it’s a meaningless judgement. A lot of the things done at the time were with the best possible intentions, but probably not the best results. It’s easy to be harsh. I hope it will create more of a sympathetic knowing of that time, than a condemnation of everyone’s parents. It was very much the mentality of the ‘doors of perception,’ this was all being done for a better world and further way of looking at life that would lead to greater freedom, greater peace and understanding.”

With Marianne looking from afar, eventually leaving Hydra and marrying a practical man in Sweden, Cohen went through several transformations and phases which are covered by Broomfield. He recorded an album with Phil Spector even he partially disowned (only performing the song Memories in shows), would then return to his essence with a series of albums that would include the classic “Hallelujah.” He found some spiritual balance in Buddhism and a more orderly home with actress Rebecca De Mornay. Always at the forefront would be the power of Cohen’s words. At times he would return to his roots, composing an enrapturing evocation like “Who By Fire,” based on the Hebrew prayer recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “I think he has a fragility that so many of us have. Maybe he had it in a more pronounced form, and maybe that’s the function of a poet anyway,” said Broomfield. “I think that’s what makes his work so strong. He’s often writing about his fragility and shortcomings. He doesn’t just come out with romantic phrases. A lot of it is full of self-humor and an acknowledgement of his own deficiencies in one form or another.”

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Ihlen and Cohen ride mules along a stone path on Hydra

Sometime in the late 70s, Broomfield did cross paths with Cohen, to whom he was still connected in a rather unique way. “I did meet Leonard. My girlfriend at the time, while we were kind of working together, also had an affair with Leonard. I think he kind of mentioned to a mutual friend, ‘well he’s been with Marianne so why shouldn’t I…you know…keep the triangle going.’ I almost interviewed her for the film but felt it was a little unnecessary. So there were lots of cross references like that, there were a lot of connections that I felt with him at the time. I met him more in the 90s and he was involved with my friend in the 70s.” Broomfield naturally loves the song Cohen composed for Marianne, but cites Bird on a Wire as his personal favorite. It is the kind of Cohen song with lyrics that seem to plead:

Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee
If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you

The documentary’s most powerful moments are in its closing chapters, when Cohen and Marianne, now much older, feeling life’s journey coming to an end, still have their special bond surviving the tumult of time’s passing. Cohen invites her to his final tours, giving her front row seats, and Broomfield includes footage of her singing along to So Long, Marianne from her spot in the crowd. When Cohen learned Marianne was on her deathbed he wrote her a final farewell full of empathy and love, which we see her hear on camera (Cohen himself was falling ill). They would die three months apart from each other, an surely worthy departure for a bard and his muse. For Broomfield, Cohen’s work has a powerful sensibility that makes it timeless. “Cohen’s audience is an older one, but I think there’s an amazing amount in him that a younger audience, of the age I was when I was in Hydra, can identify with as well and will identify with. It’s so much about someone searching for a way, which is a younger person’s search.” Broomfield smiles when I mention that I myself, from a younger generation, started playing Cohen’s apocalyptic groove The Future the night Donald Trump won the presidency. “Cohen is a very complex character and I think that’s what gives him the humanity that we can identify with.”

Broomfield has made documentaries about artists like Whitney Houston with such a frank take on human nature that I must ask what it’s like for such a documentarian to then turn the lens on a story involving himself. “It’s an interesting question. When you’re doing the investigation the audience reaction is more externalized, you’re dealing with a topic, when you’re doing with this — this is the first time I’ve made quite a personal film that’s also about love and relates to people on a very personal level. When people walk up to me after a screening they share incredible intimacies, which is very gratifying in a way. They talk about their own loves, their lives. It’s actually a more pleasing level to converse on because you’re getting a sense of that person and who they are.”

Continuing with the path now begun with Marianne & Leonard, Broomfield’s next film will be about his father, the photographer Maurice Broomfield, who will be exhibiting his work again soon. “There’s something frightening about intimacy being personal. It’s something I’d obviously been putting off for quite a while…because you don’t have those guard rails, it’s on a whole different level. But it’s also much more gratifying, because you’re making a real connection with the audience.”

Like Cohen, the filmmaker has discovered what potent art is formed from baring ourselves.


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