Broomfield isn’t just connected to the story, he’s a part of it. Broomfield visited Hydra in 1968, when the tiny sun-drenched island in the Aegean Sea was still a lure for expatriate artists. He was 20 years old and studying the law, but was more interested in photography. He was, briefly, Ihlen’s lover, an affair the Norwegian expatriate, who was 12 years older, would later renew when she joined him in Cardiff for a longer period.
Broomfield, whose many documentaries include Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and the recent Whitney: Can I Be Me, would meet Cohen as well – they bonded on their concern for Ihlen’s son, Axel, from her first marriage to a novelist who abandoned her on Hydra – and knew he had to make a film about the two when he read the letter that Cohen sent to Ihlen on her deathbed. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand,” Cohen wrote in part. “I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty.” The message bookends the documentary.
“In the footage at the end, when Marianne is dying, you can see how much he meant to her and still meant to her,” the 71-year-old Broomfield says. “This message of enduring love was something she’d carried all her life and it gave her such pleasure at that point in her life.”
On Hydra Ihlen cared for Cohen. She loved him, she fed him as he struggled with his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, she nursed him when he had a mental breakdown following its commercial failure and encouraged him when he tentatively began to consider putting his words to music. Ihlen’s devotion and practical aid debunk the ethereal image of a muse that so often reduces the female subject to a vague outline.
Broomfield intrinsically understood what she’d given Cohen, because Ihlen did the same for him. She suggested a path forward, showing Broomfield footage that the celebrated American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop) shot of her on Hydra the previous year. Broomfield would now be a retired London barrister if it wasn’t for Ihlen.
“She really helped reorientate people in the way that Rick Rubin does with musicians. It’s a real challenge to zero in on the particular strengths of an artist and encourage them to follow that avenue,” Broomfield says. “In a way, Marianne never recognised the amazing talent that she had, which was that she really listened to people. She was incredibly perceptive and had this ability to see what was unique about people.”
Broomfield believes that if Ihlen had monetised her influence – taking an agent’s 20 per cent of earnings instead of abiding gratitude for her impact – she would be more widely respected. That gulf in perception between the current day and the 1960s shades much of the film.
“The film is certainly not a puff piece. You can see a lot of human flaws in it. I wanted to make a truthful film that I felt represented them and their times, as well as celebrating their strengths. I didn’t think I had to ease up on anything,” Broomfield says. “But we live in a judgmental time. Some people felt it was reverential, others felt it was incredibly critical of Leonard with his womanising and drug taking.”
The music industry has often formed the backdrop of Broomfield’s adversarial documentaries, including Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, where he appears as a querying instigator. But for Marianne and Leonard he felt a responsibility to his subjects and respect for their friends, who were the opposite of “the scumbags” he’s often interviewed. Broomfield is but a fleeting archival presence in the film, with Ihlen and Cohen featured.
“I was part of the story, even though I tried to keep myself out of it and make it their story,” Broomfield says. “They had a big influence on my life and I felt very beholden to both of them.”
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love opens Thursday, December 12.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.