Marianne Ihlen, Leonard Cohen and the child that was left to his own devices in a bohemian, free and easy society in the 1960s.
It’s easy to look at the bohemian world of the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture – the world of artists and creatives, existing in their own little enclaves and living outside the norms of mainstream society – and imagine it as some sort of Shangri-La, a paradise removed from the drab ordinariness of the workaday. Perhaps, for many, that’s exactly what it was. But for some, particularly those who find themselves in that lifestyle by necessity rather than choice, the freedoms on offer can prove to be too much. That seems especially true for the children who were often left to their own devices by parents who were too busy finding themselves to bother thinking about what their kids might be feeling.
Little Axel is a 50-minute film about Axel Joachim Jensen, the son of Marianne Ihlen and Axel Jensen. The latter, a writer who seemed especially self-absorbed, abandoned his wife and child shortly after Little Axel – as he was known to one and all – was born and Marianne would go on to become the lover and muse of Leonard Cohen during heady and hedonistic days on the Greek island of Hydra during the 1960s. The child was essentially left to his own devices – by the age of seven he was smoking and drinking with his mother’s knowledge/consent and was having relationships with older girls (the film is rather vague about just how old either party was at this point) and travelling to Crete with an older – 12-year-old – friend, unaccompanied by adults, on a whim. This was a lax upbringing by any standards, a level of neglect that is barely imaginable. Cohen, of all the adults in his life, seems to have been the more stable influence – though hardly to the extent that we can see him as a parental figure. Everyone in the Hydra artistic community seems to have been so caught up in their own exploration of the self that they barely stopped to think about how all this might affect the kids growing up around them.
Little Axel ended up at Summerhill, the notoriously ‘progressive’ English boarding school before then being transferred – at Cohen’s expense – to a strict Swiss boarding school, a cultural clash that seems to have been a head fuck for the poor kid. A visit home to his biological father didn’t end well – the disinterested author fed the boy LSD and otherwise ignored him. In 1976, the teenager travelled – alone – to India for a trip that did not seem to go well; returning home, he had become moody, violent and very aware of how much he was ignored by the adults around him. After a few outbursts, he was sectioned at the age of 19 and has been in and out of mental institutions ever since. He currently lives – voluntarily – in a psychiatric institution near Oslo.
Little Axel tells his story – or part of it, at least – in a no-nonsense, TV documentary fashion, mixing interviews with the subject himself – often shaven-headed with a scraggly, overgrown beard and mysterious scars – and those who knew him as a child. It’s a frustratingly incomplete story that leaves us to fill in a lot of gaps and hints at things that are not followed up. It is the story of a childhood and so it essentially ends as Axel leaves his teens, making his mental decline as he entered adulthood a bit of a mystery. We see him as he is now, occasionally following his daily life – but there isn’t enough of that to really tell us how he reached the rather sad state that he seems to be in. He is, admittedly, an elusive interviewee, declining to talk about various things – but this just leaves the mystery all the more incomplete because it feels as though there is a story untold here – and when people don’t have the full story, they tend to fill in the gaps with all sorts of horrors that probably didn’t happen.
As annoyingly vague as the film is, it nevertheless paints a fascinating, not especially pleasant picture of artistic hedonists and a self-centred lifestyle that no one is going to admire. Fans of Cohen will be glad to know that he comes out of the story as the most stable influence on Little Axel’s life – the pair remained close even after Cohen and Ihlen broke up. The boy’s mother, who has been rather eulogised of late (not least in Nick Broomfield’s Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love – Broomfield, another lover of Ihlen, is interviewed here) doesn’t come across as well, seemingly disinterested in her son – not as much as his absent, wastrel father admittedly, but still seemingly tending to be a bit lax when it came to the whole child-rearing thing. Axel seems ambiguous at best about his mother but his childhood letters home from school seem to be a desperate cry for attention and love from someone who consistently failed to step up, at least not until it was too late. There is the possibility that Axel’s mental problems are inherited from his father, who some have claimed was also mentally ill, though undiagnosed (we should always be cautious about distant, after-the-fact pronouncements on mental health, but it might explain some of his behaviour) but the film is unwilling to make a statement on the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument, even if the inference throughout is that he had a terrible upbringing so what should we expect? To further complicate things it’s also possible that the teenage Axel was just another acid casualty.
As much as this film seems to be an indictment of the devil-may-care, indulgently liberal upbringing of Axel and others (who all seem much more functional than he is, for what it’s worth), we might also see the film as exploitative itself – documentaries about people who are mentally ill to whatever level always seem a bit voyeuristic even if their intentions are good. I don’t doubt that this is a story worth telling, if only to counter the stories that completely ignore this side of events – and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look. But it’s a tale that is frustratingly incomplete, leaving more questions than answers.
Little Axel screens at Raindance on November 2nd 2022.
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