‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ Review: A Ladies’ Man and His Muse ~ RollingStone

Nick Broomfield’s doc on Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ilhen — the subject of ‘So Long, Marianne’ — puts the artist-muse relationship under the microscope

Marianne Christine Ilhen and Leonard Cohen, the subjects of ‘Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.’  Babis Mores/Roadside Attractions

In the 1960s, on the Greek island of Hydra, a Norwegian ex-pat met a young Canadian poet. She was shopping in a market when this dashing, mustachioed figure appeared in the doorway. “Would you like to join us?” the handsome silhouette asked her. “We’re sitting outside.” Their eyes met, and that was it: Welcome to the Mediterranean region of Smittensville. Her name was Marianne Christine Ihlen; his name was Leonard Cohen. You probably know the rest if you know Cohen’s story, or if you simply have a passing familiarity with the lyrics to “So Long, Marianne.” If not, Nick Broomfield is happy to fill you in.

Leonard Cohen: Remembering the Poet of Brokeness

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love charts the friendship, love affairs and off-on relationship between these two, which resulted in broken hearts, cold shoulders and several unbelievably beautiful songs. After instantly connecting, the two fell into what Ihlen describes as a fairly stock male artist/female muse relationship: He spent his days writing his novel “Beautiful Losers” (later described in reviews as “verbal masturbation” — and that was the Canadian press!) and taking speed; she went shopping and prepped meals and supported him. Various friends, neighbors and fellow free spirits attest to the sort hippie-idyllic vibe of the island’s community, as home movies portray this young couple smiling, swimming and swooning over each other.

Eventually, Leonard feels compelled to return to his native Montreal, where his career as the next Norman Mailer gets sidetracked. One day, he happens to play folk singer Judy Collins a bit of “Suzanne.” She records the song and turns it into a hit. Collins gets him to perform part of it at a fundraiser and Cohen leaves the stage halfway through, sobbing. She brings him back. They finish it together. A star is born. And the union between the musician and his lady love back in Greece experiences the first of many terminal diagnoses to come.

Both a memento mori and the chronicle for how there ain’t no cure for love, the doc continually underlines Cohen’s finicky nature (after begging Marianne and her son Axel to live with him in Montreal, the two fly out to meet him … at which point he declares the invite “a mistake”) and his shark-like need to keep moving or perish. A few attempts at character psychology worm their way in — cue footage of Leonard’s mom — but mostly, we get a portrait of “the poet for quasi-depressed women of his era.” As for Ilhen, we get a sense of her loneliness, her attempts to balance being a mother and a partner, the toll of wanting something she can’t have and someone who won’t be tied down. Even as things are coming to their conclusion, Cohen is still using their bond as the basis for his art. His amore apparently disliked “So Long, Marianne.” The footage of Ilhen watching him sing the famous song that bears her name in 2009, however, suggests a tender pride at having been part of his arc.

And because this is a Broomfield joint, the director is also more than happy to tell you that he and Marianne were briefly involved with each other, to go on about how she gave him his first hit of acid and to include a contemporary scene of him visiting an old friend to talk about their glory days of hanging out with “so much golden sun-kissed people of either sex.” The way he pronounces the word “lovers” could not sound more world-weary, or more giggle-inducing and gauche; even though the veteran filmmaker actually has a legit first-hand connection to the story, the temptation to roll your eyes every time he tries to insert himself into the spotlight is irresistible. (Shockingly, the Kurt & Courtney documentarian does not bump into a single boom microphone once.) Everybody knows that you pay the ticket, you take the occasional but-enough-about-my-subject detours on the Broomfield ride.

But the payoff is huge. There’s a lot of great Cohen footage, much of it taken from the invaluable 1974 tour diary Bird on a Wire, and you get his journey from early scribblings to late-tour comeback. And Marianne & Leonard doubles as a look at the darker side of the Sixties bohemian ideal, when Hydra’s utopia went from hedonistic freedom to marriages dissolving and both donkeys and kids being unwittingly dosed. “People took it too far,” one talking head notes, and the already fine line between anything-goes and everything-falls-apart gets blurred beyond recognition. There are cracks in the permissive postcard paradise — that’s how the darkness gets in.

What makes this film unmissable, however, is the fact that we get Marianne’s story more or less in full as well. It’s a fleshing out of someone who was more than just a muse, more than just an object of affection for a notorious ladies’ man, a famous singer and an infamous bastard. We’ve heard the now-famous letter that the musician wrote to Ilhen as she lay on her deathbed, of how he was “just a little behind you” in terms of time running out. (Cohen would shuffle off this mortal coil three months after her final breath.) But to see that letter being read aloud, and to witness the run of emotions across her face as she processes one final affectionate “so long,” is to feel that the narrative has been handed back to her. There’s a reason her name comes first in the title. Marianne is no longer just “Leonard’s muse.” She’s a woman who’s lived and loved and lost completely apart from the songs.




In Documentary ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love,’ Free Love Comes At A Cost ~ NPR

Director Nick Broomfield documents the love story between musician Leonard Cohen and his lover, Marianne Ihlen, in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.

Aviva Layton/Roadside Attractions


Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, a warmly absorbing new documentary by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield, opens with an image of a beautiful young Norwegian woman steering a sailboat off the sun-soaked Greek island of Hydra. The footage, which was shot by famed documentarian and Broomfield mentor D.A. Pennebaker on a visit to the island in the 1960s, recurs from slightly different angles throughout the film. But Marianne Ihlen — an early lover of Leonard Cohen and the subject of several of his most famous songs including “So Long Marianne” — doesn’t steer this moving, sympathetic, but ultimately frustrating tribute. Perhaps inevitably, Cohen does, via Broomfield’s fascination with the singer’s tortured relations with the many women he romanced.

Ihlen and Cohen met in 1960 on Hydra, which at that time was forming as a hub of literary hippies with full subscriptions to the sexual revolution. The two had in common uncommon physical beauty and a sense of themselves as refugees, she from an abusive partner, he from the Orthodox Jewish family that both confined and inspired him. They became lovers, and Ihlen sustained Cohen through the writing of his early novel Beautiful Losers.

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