Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love – Film Review
by Paddy McGovern
Director: Nick Broomfield
Stars: Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Ron Cornelius
The story of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen is well known to all Cohen fans. At least, we thought it was until now. Nick Broomfield’s documentary takes us into locations, homes, bar sessions, backstage high jinks and a lot, lot more we never knew.
In making the film, Broomfield has been blessed by circumstance. For a start, he knew Marianne in Cardiff, where the film-maker was a student, when he was 20 and she thirteen years older. He was for a time her lover and met Cohen several times over the years. He has had access to an exceptional line-up of people who knew both Ihlen and Cohen intimately, were part of their personal or professional lives and seem to have no agenda either of score-settling or hero-worship: they simply want to tell the story, without embellishment or putting themselves centre stage. There is a lot of original video footage from the Greek island of Hydra where the couple first met, featuring Marianne and her young son, Cohen and various other expatriates. In many ways idyllic, the lifestyle on the island, with its ‘free love’, drug taking and creative buzz, was not without casualties, a common enough story in the ‘sixties.
The meeting of Cohen and Ihlen was pure coincidence. Restless in a grey and slushy Montreal, a bored and aimless Cohen booked a ticket to somewhere sunny and ended up wandering around Greece, eventually landing on to the island of Hydra. Twenty-six year old Marianne had moved there with her young son, Axel, following the break-up of her marriage to Norwegian writer Axel Jensen. She is variously described as being a nurturer and an anchor, his Muse, looking after domestic, day-to-day matters while Cohen wrote obsessively – mostly fiction that nobody could read. He became depressed, an inherited condition that recurred in bouts throughout his life. The poetry and songs came about almost by accident. Like many great talents, he lacked confidence in his song-writing and singing and had to be forced into performing by Judy Collins who, with others like Julie Felix, was to play a pivotal part in Cohen’s career. Oddly, Ihlen, a strikingly beautiful, blonde woman, was similarly beset by lack of confidence in her appearance.
Contributions from his manager, his producer, music session men and others combine to produce a comprehensive picture of two complicated, loveable but flawed people. There are moments of blissful happiness in boats and on beaches, convivial evenings with friends and free-wheeling stragglers. Editing is tight; there is not an extraneous line or image from beginning to end and the result is an enthralling film that leaves one longing for another half-hour, another hour…
Footage of the famous Isle of Wight concert in 1970 that propelled Cohen from obscurity towards major international stardom is particularly interesting, including something astonishing that occurred half way through a song. Later we see Cohen dry shaving, half way through a concert, out of his head on LSD. A band member describes fourteen-hour long LSD trips with Cohen. Among the most interesting contributors is Aviva Layton, wife of Cohen’s friend and mentor, the poet Irving Layton. Her observations are warm, witty and incisive. There is no attempt to airbrush reality or to idealise a time and place. She comments that most great artists, in whatever genre, make bad husbands and find it hard to commit to a single partner; it is impossible to “contain” them. Like other interviewees, she speaks frankly about Ihlen and Cohen but is reticent when it comes to Suzanne Verdal McAllister (who ‘takes you down to her place by the river…’). Perhaps there’s another great story in there somewhere, but if so it is unlikely to rival this one in its depiction of two fragile and beautiful people who remained in love in their own peculiar way to the end.
Having been defrauded of his fortune, Cohen returned to the international concert circuit, in a kind of Second Coming that brought him to Dublin and Lissadell and introduced him to millions of new followers. This film may well launch a Third Coming of the singer and be for many an introduction to the woman who inspired many of his most enduring songs, dying just three months before him, in 2016.
The final sequences of the film, with the exchange of messages are poignant but ultimately uplifting: graceful, dignified, unique.