Two romances anchor Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.” Both bloomed on the sparkling Greek island Hydra, many years apart. One was the great love and muse of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s life, Marianne Ihlen, the subject of at least five of his songs, including “So Long Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” The other was Broomfield’s own, more brief affair at age 20 with Ihlen, who was 12 years his senior.
Ihlen stayed friends with both men through the years. As she battled leukemia at the end of her life in 2016, her friend Jan Christian Mollestad reached out to Cohen to let him know she was near the end. Cohen wrote an email back that Mollestand reads to Ihlen on video in “Marianne & Leonard”:
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.
I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude.
She died in Oslo on July 28, 2016 at age 81; the 82-year-old Cohen followed her, dying of cancer on November 7, 2016.
The pair first met on Hydra in 1960, where divorcee Ihlen and her young son Axel moved in with Cohen; she supported his early writing. Judy Collins recorded such Cohen songs as “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” and urged Cohen to overcome his stage fright and become a performer, famously dragging him back onto the stage after he rushed off in a panic.
When Cohen’s career took off, Ihlen tried to follow him, but couldn’t make the transition into his big-city nomadic life and returned to Hydra. They stayed together off and on for eight years; he went on to marry artist Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had two children. Ihlen eventually remarried in Oslo.
Ihlen was a nurturer, Broomfield told IndieWire during a recent interview. And in the film, Aviva Layton describes her womanizing friend Cohen as “a man every woman wanted to have… but you could not be with Leonard.” The film shows beautiful women throwing themselves at him. It was the period, Broomfield reminds. He awkwardly places himself in the film as an intermittent narrator, as he tries to make connections between his brief affair and Cohen’s great romance.
“I was 20 when I went to Hydra and met her,” said Broomfield, “in the sun-kissed height of summer. I was bowled over by the beauty of Hydra; she was part of that experience. Then I got to know her better. She was encouraging. She encouraged Leonard during the time he was writing books and making that transition to singing his songs, or putting his poems to music.”
He added, “She encouraged many other people. She had a talent for spotting hidden strengths in people, and encouraging people to develop those strengths, what a highly paid manager would do. She was very perceptive about people’s strengths. I don’t think it ever occurred to her that it was a way she could have made money.”
When he met Ihlen, still photographer Broomfield was still at university studying law to be barrister. “Although I loved law, I was troubled by the lifestyle I was buying into,” he said. “In England at that time, if you wanted to be a barrister and be successful you had to get into the hunting, fishing, shooting set, which was pretty off-putting.”
D.A. Pennebaker had been on Hydra the year before, and Broomfield relies heavily on the lauded documentarian’s footage of Marianne on a sailboat. “It had left a deep impression with her,” said Broomfield. “She was taken with him and that kind of filmmaking. She was very persuasive that I should be making films about the melting pot community Tiger Bay, one of the most racially harmonious parts of England. I made ‘who cares?’ with a wind-up camera, with voices of the people speaking over the images. I couldn’t do sync sound.”
Broomfield did, of course, become a documentary filmmaker of such films as “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (with then-partner Joan Churchill), “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam,” and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.”
And when Ihlen and Cohen both died, he realized “they had been such a formative part of my development,” he said. “So that was a massive influence. Because of her, I left the college I was at studying law and went to a different university near London, because you could make film at that university and have it count as part of your degree. When she died, I thought, ‘wow, I had been so negligent with keeping in touch with somebody so influential in my life.’ I was pretty distressed. I felt I wanted to revisit that seminal period.”
While Broomfield has played the role of reporter in such films as “Grim Sleeper,” “this obviously was very personal,” he said. “I tried to make it a more intimate portrait of somebody very important to me at that particular time.”
He sought to use as much of Cohen and Ihlen talking as possible, but there wasn’t as much compelling material as he needed. “I then reluctantly put myself into the film,” he said. “I was worried it was going to be taking away from their story, not adding to it, but I would be, with Marianne, also talking about our relationship. And by putting my voice into the film I was able to move the story a lot more, as not really a narrator, but somebody who was a quasi-participant, also a kind of storyteller.”
At the poignant end of the film, when Cohen was on his last tour, we see Ihlen smiling in the audience, singing along to “So Long, Marianne.”
“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is in theaters today.