The Director of documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love often appears in his own films, his style of film-making in a meta-documentary style is to expose the process of the inquiry. In this case, Nick Broomfield is uniquely placed to be able to tell the story of Leonard Cohen and his lover and muse Marianne Ihlen.
Broomfield was only 20 years old in the late 1960s when he met Marianne. He was her lover briefly and she went on to introduce him to Leonard Cohen’s music and encourage Broomfield to make his first film. This then potentially gives the viewer a unique insight into at least Marianne’s life.
The choice of title Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love sets up both subjects for equal attention. But that isn’t completely how this film pans out. As Marianne packs up and leaves their Hydra cottage, her presence in the film also lessens. Of course, there is so much footage on Cohen. And he is a mighty figure in music, Cohen holds a huge fascination and this makes an excellent frame on which to hang the movie.
Leonard Cohen was a poet, a singer-songwriter, lover of women, sometime Zen Buddhist disciple. He wrote three decades of songs including the giant “Hallelujah” and “So Long Marianne” which was inspired by Marianne Ihlen. Cohen met Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in the heady era of the 1960s, the time of free love and plenty of acid. Beautiful shots of these idyllic days float through the film, much on archival amateur film. Broomfield has drawn together a treasure-trove of old film in grainy dreamy quality which gives the viewer a peephole into that life.
After the disastrous sales of his novel, Cohen’s need for some kind of income drove him to New York. He visits Hydra less and less. In New York, in 1966 Cohen met Judy Collins, sang a song called “Suzanne” and got picked up for his first record in 1967. The rest… as they say…
The images of the sun-kissed Marianne and the sparkling blue sea become full of ache.
One of the most powerful ways we get to know Leonard and Marianne is to hear their voices telling parts of the stories. To hear Marianne describe her fading hopes of being with Leonard is heartbreaking. Warmly filmed interviews of key figures add personality and humour. Long-term partner of Cohen’s poet friend Irving Layton, Aviva Layton’s candour is hysterical. And Ihlen’s friend Jan Christian Mollestad who was at her bedside two days before her death gives us a most beautiful insight into the enduring bond between the poet and his muse.
Of Broomfield’s 50-year friendship with Ihlen, there is very little footage of any contact between them beyond the 1960s. There is a follow-up on families who failed to thrive upon leaving the idyllic Hydra. But not until the final frames do we re-find Ihlen. The final section of the film features the now-famous letter Cohen sent to his beloved Marianne on hearing news that she is about to die. But in a brilliant bitter-sweet caption to that farewell are the final words from Cohen from one of his Hydra poems:
“I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world”
Broomfield is clearly reverential and respectful towards Leonard Cohen. The heartbreak for Marianne clearly comes through, her struggles with her son Axel, her move back to Norway. An amazing and moving shot of her mouthing the words to her song as Leonard performs in Oslo in 2009. She is depicted as a lost figure at the mercy of the excess and fall-out of the 1960s.
But in the final glimpse of her, the warmth and humour of this beautiful soul is what stays with me … two days before her death she is laughing and thanking the hospital staff. Always grateful. Always kind.
Thank you, Nick Broomfield and team, for bringing this beautiful sweet sorrow to the screen. It gives us a chance to sit with Leonard and Marianne with considerable honour - kei te pei, kei te pei.
Rest well Len and Marianne.