In possibly his best work, the sensitive and cautionary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, it’s hard to avoid his own self-involvement in the sun-drenched relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian woman who inspired Cohen’s song “So Long Marianne.”
Broomfield lets us know early about his own decades-long friendship with Ihlen, and their brief time as lovers post-Leonard. But he doesn’t overplay that card. It serves the narrative insofar as she sometimes fled in times of personal crisis to his “hovel,” giving Broomfield periodic glimpses into the evolution of a relationship that started in an artist commune on the Greek island of Hydra. (Though we never see her interviewed, Ihlen does speak her piece in archival audio interviews).
Only part of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love belongs to her, in the same way Cohen only belonged to her during their respective Mediterranean exiles. She and her toddler son had fled an abusive marriage in Norway, he fled his reputation as a poet in Canada for what would turn out to be an initially disastrous attempt to write a novel under the sun (the poorly reviewed, subsequently revered Beautiful Losers).
Most importantly, their idyllic time together, doing LSD with bohemian ex-pats of all sorts, predated Cohen’s career as a singer-songwriter. The discovery that his poems could be hit songs was a revelation that was also poisonous to their relationship.
The “home movie” aspect of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is confined to this first third of the movie, and is a pleasant, posthumous look at the writer and his muse in the full bloom of youth. It’s odd to think of the beautiful Judy Collins as a snake in the Garden of Eden, the one to introduce him to songwriting, to learning the guitar, and to appreciating the sound of his own voice.
Music led Cohen away from his Mediterranean paradise, to a life of touring, drugs and other women… lots of women. Indeed, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love makes a point — one that many of us have intuited — that Leonard Cohen was a male artist who appealed to women perhaps more than he did to men. (Many of the most cogent comments on the futility of relationships with artists come from Aviva Layton, the widow of Cohen’s longtime friend, poet Irving Layton).
Ihlen made one desperate attempt to integrate into the world Cohen left her for, moving to Montreal with her melancholy son “little Axel.” It apparently didn’t last long.
Though it kind of loses track of its marquee title character mid-movie, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a must-watch for Cohen fans, with copious concert and backstage footage. It is also a snapshot of a time, and of hedonistic artistic idealism. Broomfield takes a few moments to catch up with the denizens of that idealized seaside art commune and it isn’t pretty: suicides, institutionalized children, rampant disillusionment, gentrification.
The movie does end on a tender note, however, as we hear how Cohen sent words to the dying Ihlen, mere months before his own death, that almost erased the angst that separated them from their golden moment.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Directed by Nick Broomfield. Starring Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Aviva Layton. Opens wide July 12.