Broomfield explains, over beautiful footage of Marianne on a fishing boat, that it was the ’60s – “a time of free love and open marriage, including Leonard and Marianne’s”.
“I was a rather lost 20-year-old visiting the island of Hydra when Marianne befriended me,” Broomfield continues. “For a short while, I became one of her lovers. She encouraged me to follow my dreams and she played me Leonard’s songs under the Greek moon and stars. Her smile and enthusiasm were one of a kind and I felt completely intoxicated by the beauty of their relationship.”
Those last five words are perhaps the key to the film, which is rather more about Leonard than Marianne. Broomfield was born in January 1948, so his visit must have been about 1968, a year after Cohen left Hydra to pursue a new path as a songwriter in New York.
Cohen would often return to Hydra, but Broomfield never quite makes clear whether he knew him there – or ever. I suspect not. In this recreation of a specific time in the lives of two beautiful people, Cohen is almost a dream, even a cliche of the freedom-loving, bed-hopping, can’t-be-tied-to-one-woman artist.
Broomfield’s intoxication is partly inspired by his own proximity. He wants to know this man who was the lover of his lover. He seems dazzled by Cohen’s refusal to be tied down, his relentless self-absorption.
Broomfield’s films have often been combative and controversial. Many of his subjects seem chosen to produce sparks – such as his encounter with the white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche in South Africa (The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife) or Kurt Cobain’s widow in Kurt & Courtney.
This film is different precisely because Broomfield was a long-time friend of Marianne. His heart is invested, which gives the film a welcome intimacy and warmth. It’s probably true to say that Broomfield loves them both – but only one of them from personal knowledge. That makes the film mellow, a tad nostalgic.
Marianne and Leonard spent eight years together on Hydra, during which she was his willing muse – “at his feet” as she describes it – while he wrote novels and poetry that few people read. They had a small house and a simple life, in which she did the shopping and cooking, and he wrote. They also took a lot of LSD and speed, trying to enhance creativity. Drugs are the shadow over this lost Eden. As Marianne’s biographer Helle Goldman says: ‘There was so much freedom there that people went too far with it.”
Leonard doesn’t come through the film unscathed. Long-time fans will have to confront some ugly aspects of his character, but none that he did not himself confront in his own relentless self-examination. Some may find the analysis of why they broke up lacking in depth, when Broomfield resorts to cliches about “what women want”.
The most poignant voice in the film, as it should be, is that of Marianne, who eventually returned to Oslo with her son ‘Little Axel’ and married again. When Marianne was dying, Leonard sent her a loving message, which seems to presage his own death. They departed this life within three months of each other in 2016.
“See you down the road,” he told her.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.