Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
2019, R, 102 min. Directed by Nick Broomfield.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 19, 2019
Part of the legend that surrounds the life and career of Leonard Cohen has to do with his contradictions. Cohen was a poet and novelist whose artistic success only came as a songwriter and performer; he was a young hedonist who later adopted Buddhist asceticism; he was a faithful romantic with a wandering eye. Leonard Cohen was a human being, an aesthete both flawed and sublime. “Hallelujah.”
In 1960, the young author with two published books of poetry departed Canada, and his world travels brought him to the artists’ colony on the Greek island of Hydra (and in another contrast, the ancient and sun-kissed environs were in decided opposition to snowy Montreal). There he met Marianne Ihlen, long lauded as Cohen’s muse, and continued to live with her on the island for more than seven years. Although they tried to maintain the relationship for several more years through long-distance communication and fitful reunions (including a period during which Marianne and her young son Axel moved to New York to live with Leonard), the pairing could not surmount the era’s self-indulgence. Cohen was living with his muse in New York while also writing about getting head from another paramour at the Chelsea Hotel. Despite their inability to remain a monogamous couple, Marianne and Leonard remained loving friends 'til the end. Their deaths came months apart from each other. “So long, Marianne.”
Being directed by Nick Broomfield, the provocative and self-referential filmmaker, it’s fair for a viewer to come to Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love with questions about how Broomfield was going to insert himself into the text. It turns out that Broomfield was also one of Marianne Ihlen’s lovers during his own stay on Hydra, a friendship that continued over the years during her visits to England. Broomfield was in an excellent position to observe the unending relationship between Leonard and Marianne. So were several others, who give testimony in the film. Also of great help in putting the film together is much documentary footage of Marianne on Hydra in the Sixties, shot by the documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who was one of the many artists who docked in the port for a time. This footage is essential to this film, allowing us to view Marianne as a solo human being and not just as a muse to a great man. It is she who first noticed the figurative beauty of a nearby “bird on a wire,” not he.
Yet this is also how the movie fails. Praiseworthy for finally providing some three-dimensionality to the figure of Ihlen, the film doesn’t go far enough in examining the plight of the muse. Essential to the artist but a tangent for the artist’s acolytes, muses are mostly women and remembered mostly in song titles and book dedications – in other words, through the Other’s eyes. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love offers a great opportunity to explore the experience via the muse’s own truth. Broomfield touches on this but never examines it deeply, and fast-tracks through the remainder of Ihlen’s life after Leonard, and provides disturbing hints but no practical information about the mental struggles of her son Axel (to whom Leonard was also very close). The film should lure in all Cohen-heads (and, really, who isn’t one), but it doesn’t color outside its two-person narrative, which only exists because one of the two is famous. “I’m Your Man,” sings the film as it “dances to the end of love.”