On a concert stage on the Isle of Wight in 1970, Leonard Cohen dedicated a song to someone he “knew very well.” Trench-coated, unshaven and clearly stoned on something, a lost-looking Cohen spoke of his one-time muse and former lover. “I wrote this for Marianne. I hope she’s here, maybe she’s here. I hope she’s here, Marianne.”
Ten years earlier, Cohen, in his mid-20s and living off a government grant, had arrived on the Greek island of Hydra, a sun-baked bohemia for Aegean hipsters and the free-love crowd. “I saw this island, completely shining,” Cohen says, in the new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. “I met a girl there, and I stayed.”
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is the wistful telling of the love affair and on-and-off co-habitation of the Montreal poet/novelist-turned-troubadour Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian-blonde inspiration behind the 1967 breakup song So Long, Marianne. (Cohen said his final goodbye to a dying Marianne by a poetic e-mail in 2016, before following her off the mortal coil four months later). The film is the work of the veteran British documentarian Nick Broomfield, who himself came to Hydra as a “lost 20-year-old" in 1968. He was befriended by Ihlen and was, he says, a lover of hers for a “short while.”
Broomfield is known for lurid films such as 1995′s Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam or 1998′s controversial Kurt & Courtney, in which it is suggested that the iconic musician Kurt Cobain died not by suicide, but murder. Marianne & Leonard is much softer-boiled. Still, though Broomfield admits early in the film that he was “intoxicated by the beauty of their relationship," the film isn’t awestruck homage. Cohen, if you didn’t know already, was a bit of a jerk at times.
“Leonard incorporated the contradictions and the excesses of that era into his work,” Broomfield says, speaking from Sussex, England. “Far from painting himself as a kind of a saint, part of the strength of his work is that he’s very aware of his own curiosities and blemishes.” Phoning during a birthday party for his adult son, the director had climbed to the top of an old water mill to escape the noise below. “I’m afraid I’m a bit winded," he says.
Using talking heads, archival footage, taped recollections from the titular subjects and his own narration, Broomfield delves into the mystical notion of the artist-muse relationship. Cohen and Ihlen were almost young when they met on Hydra – he, a brooding writer; she, the charismatic abandoned wife of a Norwegian novelist. “I was his Greek muse who sat at his feet," Ihlen says in the film. “He was the creative one.”
Cohen was the creative one who wrote his second novel Beautiful Losers while on speed. He was also the creative one who came and went as he pleased. “It was a selfish life, but it didn’t seem so at the time,” Cohen says in a voice-over culled from an interview with filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. “People close to me suffered, because I was always leaving, always trying to get away.”
According to Broomfield, Ihlen, a single mother at the time, never saw herself as the victim. “I don’t think she felt sad for herself. She was a very elegant person who was fascinated by life.”
In his song So Long, Marianne, a restless Cohen comes off as a bit of a cad. He accuses Marianne of being possessive, possibly deceitfully so: “Your fine spider web is fastening my ankle to a stone.”
Marianne is also blamed for Cohen losing his religion: “Well, you know that I love to live with you, but you make me forget so very much / I forget to pray for the angels, and then the angels forget to pray for us.”
Cohen is also hard on himself: “I’m cold as a new razor blade."
Ihlen’s excellent response to So Long, Marianne was pointedly nonchalant. She told Cohen the song couldn’t possibly be about her because he pronounced “Marianne” in a North American way, but that she was Norwegian.
Asked about his assessment of Cohen the man, Broomfield says he goes along with the candid thoughts of Aviva Cantor, the long-time common-law wife of Canadian poet Irving Layton, a close friend of Cohen’s. “He could love women from a distance, make them feel good, but he couldn’t give himself to them," she said of the I’m Your Man Lothario. "He couldn’t give himself away.”
Says Broomfield, “Aviva’s view of Leonard is the view I believe. It made sense to me.”
Whenever Cohen would make an important life choice, his pal Layton would ask, “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?” Broomfield laughs at the quote. “That gets to Leonard Cohen’s character,” he says. "And I think you adore a person like that, too. After all, we all have that element in ourselves.”
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