Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Musical documentary ponders the inspirational power of love
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Directed by Nick Broomfield
The word “muse” is a rather loaded piece of terminology. It traces back to the ancient Greek, of course, referencing the nine mythological goddesses who presided over the realms of song and poetry. The word has lived on and evolved, coming to reference any source of inspiration to artists, poets, musicians. And that is, in general, a positive thing. But it’s also a benevolent form of sexism, implying that men are artists and that the role of women is not to create, but to inspire men to do so. Cliché or not, it’s a concept that has stuck through the ages and often proves itself applicable in the real world.
Noted documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Monster in a Box, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac) explores the phenomenon in his latest work Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. The artist in this case is singer, songwriter and object of cult worship Leonard Cohen. The muse is Cohen’s lover and longtime companion Marianne Ihlen. The two met—incongruously—on the sunny Greek isle of Hydra. Leonard was a terminally depressed Canadian fleeing the snow of Montreal to become a novelist. Marianne was a single Nordic mother running away from her abusive husband. At the time (circa 1960), Hydra was an expat haven for authors, poets and musicians. Leonard took acid, sat in the sun and wrote novels. Marianne fell hard for him, made sandwiches and went swimming in the Mediterranean. At times Words of Love is as much a snapshot of this hippie-era Mecca as it is a portrait of the famous people who passed through its streets.
For a time Marianne and Leonard’s life was idyllic. But when Cohen’s success as a novelist failed to materialize, he approached friend and famed folk singer Judy Collins with what he thought might be a song. Turns out it was. That 1966 ballad “Suzanne” was a hit for Collins and went on to become the cornerstone of Cohen’s own debut album. Odds are you know much of what happened from there.
Through a mountain of photos and archival footage and the reminiscences of various friends who were there, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love traces Cohen’s rise to cult stardom and his lifelong, on-again/off-again love affair/
Broomfield’s connection to the story is more than just casual. He showed up on Hydra in the early ’60s and became one of Marianne’s lovers. This is admitted early in the film and only serves to enhance Broomfield’s passion for telling the story. Bright-faced, open-minded and a legendarily good listener, Marianne caught the attention of many young men of the day. Though her relationship with Leonard was an “open” one (well in keeping with the era’s “free love” mantra), it’s clear that Marianne and Leonard had a certain portion of their soul reserved for one another and no one else.
Nonetheless, “poets do not make great husbands,” observes one talking head who was there. Of course our titular subjects were not destined for a “happily ever after” storyline. Battling the angel/devil figures of mounting fame and crippling depression, Cohen drifted further and further from Marianne and her young son Alex. By the start of the 1970s, Cohen’s career as a folk music legend was firmly established and his relationship with Marianne was fading.
“How long would we stay in love before we had to address our problems?” muses Marianne in one of the film’s many deeply personal voiceovers, captured before her death in 2016. Although the film serves as a flashback of Cohen’s unusual rise to fame, it’s more of a memento mori—a reminder that love is fleeting, that feelings change and that relationships die.
Despite the title, Broomfield ultimately weights his coverage more toward Mr. Cohen. There’s just more to tell. After life with the self-styled “poet to quasi-depressed women” (as one friend puts it), poor lonely Marianne tried (and mostly succeeded) to live a more ordinary life. Cohen, by contrast, went on to become Leonard Cohen, musical icon. He didn’t even reach the apex of his fame until his seventies, when a worn and gravel-filled voice gave even greater gravitas to his catalogue of songs.
All told, Leonard and Marianne only spent about 10 years in close proximity to one another. And the fact that Marianne fades somewhat from Broomfield’s narrative is perhaps inevitable. Having fulfilled her role as muse, she moves on, largely unrewarded and unremembered. Does Marianne stand as a figure, complete unto herself, or is she merely an accessory to Cohen’s story? Feel free to contemplate the thought yourself (and the entire concept of the selfless female muse.)
At least the filmmaker finds the perfect hook on which to hang his conclusion. In the end—the very final end—the musician and his muse managed to share an incredibly tender moment of connection. Captured on camera, it’s a true tearjerker and a perfect moment on which to bow out. Musicians and their muses aside, it’s the simple idea of two people finding one another and loving each other through time and tide that gives Words of Love its deepest, most heartfelt impact.