Little Axel (2021) Raindance Film Festival 2022

October 25th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Fabien Greenberg, Bard Kjøge Rønning; Documentary with Axel Joachim Jensen, Marianne Ihlen, Leonard Cohen, Nick Broomfield, Axel B. Jensen; Norway 2021, 57′

A new and heart-breaking documentary about Axel Joachim Jensen (*1960), who has spent more than forty years in Oslo’s Gaustadt Psychiatric Hospital, being treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Best known for being the son of Norwegian writer Axel Buchardt Jensen (1932-2003), aka the Norwegian Jack Keouac, and Marianne Ihlen, muse of Leonard Cohen, who both died a few months apart in 2016, his life has been tragic, to say the least.

In the 1960s, the Greek island of Hydra was a paradise for sex, alcohol and drugs and haven where artists and would-be artists had the time of their lives. When Marianne Ihlen and her new-born son Axel Joachim Jensen arrived on the island, Marianne presumed that Axel sr would be there to raise his son. But the author had already left with another female admirer leaving Marianne and Axel in the lurch. Enter Canadian writer and poet Leonard Cohen, who would for over twenty years be Axel’s more or less caring father. Cohen paid Alex’s eduction at the anti-authoritarian Summerhill in Suffolk, and later in a much stricter Swiss boarding school.

But Axel, like many children in the artist colony, roamed free from an early age. Kids were present at the parties, and the partner changes, and Axel started smoking when he was seven. Later he turned to hashish and, when he met his biological father Axel sr for the first and last time as a young teenager, Axel sr then introduced him to LSD, profoundly affecting his emotional development.

When Axel jr was nine, he and a friend of his – just three years older – travelled 260 km around Greece without any supervision. India was his next traumatic playground, at the tender age of fifteen. By his late teens he was institutionalised in Gaustadt after spending time with Cohen in New York where the international star spent the nights at the famous Chelsea Hotel. His relationship with Ihlen had ended after eight years, but the two remained friends ’til the end of their lives.

Filmmaker Nick Broomfield, who directed Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, is one of many witnesses interpreting the environment where Axel jr and other children grew up. But the main reason why Axel went off the rails was his father, author Axel. B Jensen, whose comments on marriage and child-rearing are bizarre to say the least. He was a patient of the anti-establishment psychiatrist David Cooper, who rated his mental state as borderline.

As for Axel Jensen’s legal guardian, who encouraged his ‘participation’ in the documentary, one can only guess for motives: Axel comes across as a shell of a person, after being prescribed forty years (and counting) of mind-altering drugs. His mother was the only person who regularly visited him in Graustadt, but she too had a new family to look after.

Little Axel’s childhood may have had an enviable childhood but his personality was simply too sensitive to withstand the abrupt changes his life took. This is one of most depressing documentaries for a long time exploring unintentional childhood neglect leading to lifelong psychiatric care. Poor Axel was well-nourished and provided for materially but deprived of the stable and unconditional love he deserved. AS


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