More than a muse: The story of Marianne and Leonard

Nick Broomfield © Nick Broomfield

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Nick Broomfield was 20 and disillusioned after a year of studying law when he went to Hydra to become an artist. It was 1968, a year after the summer of love, and a colony of hippies and bohemian artists had descended upon the Greek island for sex, drugs and higher spiritualism. Two days after he got off the boat, Broomfield met Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian woman living in the colony with her child, Axel. They struck up a friendship. There, Ihlen introduced Broomfield to her lover: a young Canadian writer called Leonard Cohen.

“It was crazy, fun…” Broomfield reflects in a deep, quiet voice with an accent that isn’t quite English or American. “Everyone was on a search or a quest or something. There were so many possibilities.” We’re sitting in a long, echoing boardroom in Sheffield, a long way from Hydra. Broomfield, now 71 and an established BAFTA Award-winning documentarian, is waiting to introduce his new film, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. The mood is quiet and contemplative as he thinks back to the time he spent with his friend.

Ihlen met Cohen on Hydra, eight years before Broomfield arrived. Both had left behind their chilly, conservative homelands of Norway and Montreal, searching for a free bohemianism. At the height of the countercultural epoch, the kindred spirits began a love affair that would colour the rest of their lives. The couple’s tumultuous romance became immortalised in the work of Cohen – most famously in the song So Long, Marianne – and, as Cohen established himself as one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, Ihlen became an essential part of the mythology.

Even the end of their lives played out like one of Cohen’s songs: Ihlen passed away in 2016 and five months later Cohen followed her. It was the sudden shock of having his old friends and mentors dying so close to one another that made Broomfield start to reflect on his past. “I was outraged, at first, that they dared to die,” he says. “They were such an intrinsic part of my growing up, especially Marianne who was such a big part of me becoming a filmmaker. Being faced with her death almost necessitated me to visit the beginnings of things. I didn’t necessarily know how I was going to make a film.”

Broomfield began by reaching out to documentarian DA Pennebaker who had also been on Hydra with Ihlen and Cohen in the 60s. “We called Pennebaker up because he shot everything. He used 16mm like we use our phones now. He had so much stuff from then. Pennebaker’s son went down and spent a weekend digging through his archive and came across footage of Marianne that had never been viewed. It was amazing.”

Alongside gorgeous, restored archive footage, Words of Love is made up of interviews with Ihlen and Cohen’s acquaintances, friends and family. Broomfield steers a profoundly personal narrative through his voiceover, reflecting not just on their life story but his own, as he drifted within their orbit. “The personal stuff was the most difficult bit,” he admits. “I was making a film about two superheroes and the last thing I wanted was to force the audience to suddenly go off into some irrelevant separate film about me. I wanted it to be part of the story rather than a digression. I wanted to use the personal stuff as chapters that moved the story along and to look at who Marianne was.”

Although Ihlen will forever be remembered as Cohen’s muse, Broomfield was eager to interrogate what that aspect of their relationship actually meant to them both. “Muse is a funny word,” Broomfield says softly. “She was selflessly encouraging to others, including myself. I think so many people depend on that person in their lives in one way or another. Those people are unsung heroes and I think Marianne was very much a part of Leonard’s development from writer to songwriter. His work wouldn’t have been the same without her.”

Does Broomfield think Ihlen ever felt trapped in the role of supporter? “I think she felt inadequate,” he says with a hint of dejection. “I think what she did was amazing and no less of a talent – just different. I think there’s a lot of emphasis on people who make their own product – painters, writers, singers – and I think she felt it wasn’t really enough to be an encourager of others. She had a way of getting people to really talk about feelings and inner thoughts and finding a way of getting that person to move forward, which is a real strength and a real talent. It’s unfortunate she felt that it wasn’t enough.”

Broomfield clearly has a deep admiration and love for his subjects. However, as in his previous documentaries, Broomfield is careful not to minimise his subject’s darker impulses. Words of Love doesn’t shy away from conveying the unsavoury aspects of Ihlen and Cohen’s relationship, particularly when Cohen started drifting away from Ihlen as his fame increased. In the documentary, archive footage shows young women approaching a smiling Cohen, while on stage he jokingly introduces So Long, Marianne by admitting that he once would spend a whole year with the titular Marianne. Then two months. And eventually, just two days a year.

“Marianne was very much a part of Leonard’s development from writer to songwriter. His work wouldn’t have been the same without her”

“They were both sexually very fluid. Marianne was involved with women and men and I think Leonard was probably involved with a lot of women. They had a tolerance for each other despite it being unbelievably painful. There was suffering that went with it.”

When asked if Cohen’s fame was the reason the couple broke apart, Broomfield pauses. “I think it’s a bit like that line in Leonard’s poem at the end of the film,” he says carefully, referencing Cohen’s 1985 poem Days of Kindness. “That he overthrew [Ihlen and his loved ones] for an education in the world. He started his music career and there were so many objects of desire that he wasn’t prepared to commit. Friends of Marianne’s were very critical of Leonard because they saw the pain Marianne was going through. But it’s hard because they were both non-judgemental and it’s hard to understand their relationship in a useful way by judging either of them by some other criteria.”

Eventually the relationship broke down, and though their lives took divergent paths – she ultimately returned to Norway – they stayed in touch. As she neared the end of her life, a friend of hers emailed Cohen who wrote the now-famous response. In Broomfield’s film, we see the moment Cohen’s letter was read to Ihlen, telling her: “I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

This brings the conversation full circle. Why did Broomfield want to make this film in the first place? “Because these were mythical figures in my life who left a massive impression on me. Especially Marianne. I only listened to Leonard’s work as diligently as I did to understand her better. I was trying to find meaning in all his words,” he laughs. “Probably entirely incorrectly.”

If Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an attempt to gain an understanding of his friends, then it also required some deep introspection on Broomfield’s part. “I really don’t think you should know how you’re going to put a film together. Each film is an emotional journey. I had to go back and relive it all as part of that journey,” he explains. “I was very naive and romantic and impressionable back then. It was a journey of self-discovery for me as much as it was learning about Marianne and Leonard.”

And what did Broomfield learn about himself by making a film about two heroes of that time and place? “That I made a lot of mistakes,” he laughs again, louder, breaking the room’s tension. “And that that was a very good thing.”

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is out now

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