Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love serves up more Leonard than Marianne

Now playing at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a poignant, lyrical and occasionally eye-opening documentary that is doomed to disappoint its intended audience on one or more levels, even while they lap it up. If you’re coming to it primarily as a Leonard Cohen fan, you may wonder why there isn’t more concert footage. There are lots of snippets of the great singer/songwriter’s work, both onstage and in informal gatherings; but not a single song is performed in its entirety. So, if that’s the movie you’re after, you’re better off hunting down Lian Lunson’s 2015 effort Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, in which odd bits of Cohen being interviewed by Rufus Wainwright orbit around the core of an excellent tribute concert and a song or two by the man himself.

Another potential audience component will be female students of Cohen’s work — who long constituted the majority of his fanbase — in quest of more information about Marianne Ihlen, the shadowy figure who served as his Muse in his youth and reconnected with him sporadically throughout his career. As was widely reported in 2016, Cohen, aware that he was dying himself and being informed that Ihlen was on her deathbed, sent her the following note:

Dearest Marianne,
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.
I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road.
Love and gratitude,
Leonard

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Ihlen died in Oslo in July, Cohen in LA in November. Both had leukemia. Marianne & Leonard captures on film the moment when a mutual friend of Ihlen and the filmmaker reads her the final missive from her lost love. Ihlen, on a respirator, deems the note “beautiful,” and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

But viewers seeking more insight into the woman herself — who she was, besides the lover who lived with Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra during most of the 1960s and inspired some of his best-known early songs, including “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire” — will likely come away unfulfilled. The director touches at intervals on the vague status of women designated Muses who don’t practice some art of their own, but he doesn’t delve deeply enough for these woke times. And his view of Ihlen is largely colored by his own acquaintance with her on Hydra, including a brief affair during a period when Cohen was pursuing work in the US. She gets to be his Muse in a way as well, encouraging Broomfield to take up filmmaking as a career, based on her interactions with D. A. Pennebaker when he visited the island.

Part of the frustration here lies in the skimpy supply of archival footage. There are plenty of still photos of Marianne on the island, both with and without Leonard. There’s some very burnt-out, grainy eight-millimeter film footage of Marianne on a sailboat, shot by Pennebaker. But she only gets to speak for herself in voiceovers lifted from a 2005 Norwegian radio documentary. More revealing are recent interviews with people who knew both Ihlen and Cohen during the period of their Greek idyll; Ihlen’s friend and biographer, Helle Goldman; and Aviva Layton, who was married for 20 years to the Canadian poet Irving Layton, Cohen’s mentor at McGill University who went on to become his close friend and whose mantra had been “Make sure you’re doing the wrong thing,”

Among them, these chroniclers of the period recount in detail the hedonistic Bohemian lifestyle of the expats on Hydra, the open sexual arrangements that usually led to breakups, Cohen’s heavy use of amphetamines to fuel his writing and, most poignantly, the psychological toll of parental neglect on the children born and raised in this superficially blissful environment. Ihlen’s own son by her first marriage, Axel Jensen, was only a baby when his father left Marianne for another woman and Ihlen took up with Cohen in 1960; the documentary takes a sobering turn with the news that Axel went on to spend much of his life in mental institutions.

We do know that Cohen took a fatherly interest in Axel and continued to send money to mother and son even after his career as a musician took off circa 1966/67 and he was spending most of his time in Montreal and New York. And Ihlen continued to use their little house on Hydra sporadically — up until the point when Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s two children (not the Suzanne of Cohen’s breakout song “Suzanne”), showed up on the doorstep in 1972 demanding that Ihlen vacate the premises. Defeated, Ihlen went home to Norway, worked at unglamorous secretarial jobs, eventually married a nice normal Norwegian guy named Jan Stang who wasn’t a globetrotting poet ardently pursued by hordes of proto-Goth folk music groupies.

Those who want to learn more about how all this felt to Marianne will find that altogether too much of this movie consists of footage of Leonard Cohen on tour, performing while taking LSD, compulsively chasing skirts, spending years in a Buddhist monastery, dealing with being defrauded by his longtime manager and so on. It’s all good fodder for a Leonard Cohen documentary, but that’s a story that fans already know — and not what one might hope for, given that Marianne’s name comes first in the film’s title.