“…when your woman becomes her own content, and you become her content, that’s love.”
“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is a soulful documentary examining the relationship between a pure artist and his often-ignored partner, who became the most important person in his life. For many, the relationship between an artist and their work is more important than any lover or longtime companion. This stark reality is the main theme of this film.
Make no mistake, Leonard Cohen fell in deep love with Marianne Ihlen, and she would become his muse. The classic songs “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long Marianne” (and perhaps a few more, according to Ihlen) were written for her and about their time together. Ihlen would inspire a creativity in Cohen that he often struggled with, but one that would bring him the success that had previously eluded him.
On the island of Hydra in Greece (a fitting setting, as the Nine Muses were of Greek mythology), Cohen and Ihlen spent their time living in the best sense of the word, filling their days with sun, food, drink, poetry, song, and sex. The two souls excited and inspired one another, and fell deeply in love.
The sometimes too intrusive but always interesting filmmaker Nick Broomfield does some of his best work here. The director had always inserted himself into his own films with varying degrees of success in the past, but in this particular case it is warranted, as Broomfield personally knows Ihlen and bore witness to a good part of her life. The filmmaker’s closeness to his subject allows us even more insight into Ihlen’s state of mind through her letters and conversations. Broomfield’s friendship and correspondence with Ihlen is our gateway to this quite wonderful story.
One of the many pleasures of this film is hearing Marianne’s voice speaking of her and Cohen’s relationship and time together. Ihlen fully admits (or perhaps concedes?) to being his muse and being “at his feet” while he crafted and learned to direct his vision. We discover how the two made one another love living and it is a pleasure to hear her discuss the ways Cohen spoke of their moments together in his songs. Ihlen’s recollections are as beautifully sad and poetic as anything Leonard Cohen ever wrote.
While the beauty of Cohen’s lyrics is intoxicating, the sadness and pain show through as we learn of how his desire to find “something else” led to deep depression and, along with undying attraction to many women, caused his relationship with Marianne to crumble and affect not only the two of them but all who were around them.
Broomfield makes excellent use of unseen archival footage as we watch the ebb and flow of the relationship. The film’s only misstep is a short stretch where we follow Cohen on his life/career journey after he has left Ihlen behind. His career has already been well enough documented over the years and I would rather have followed Marianne on her personal journey.
Yet we do return to Ihlen, learning of the tragedy of her son and his drug use and the alienation that was a direct result of neglect by his mother when he was young. It is made clear that she loved her son but the emotional toil from her relationship with Cohen caused her to seek out companionship from other men and that desire to be needed came at the price of ignoring her son when he needed her the most.
A final moment from a 2009 concert where Cohen gave Ihlen front row seats to one of his sold-out shows in Oslo is a moment of beauty that leads to the film’s finale which takes place at the end of Marianne’s life.
When Cohen heard that Ihlen was near death, he sent her a letter that would become one of the singer/poet’s defining moments. It is a personal and heartbreakingly positive goodbye where Ihlen finally heard the words she always desired.
“Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love” is a film that brings the lyrics to some of Leonard Cohen’s best work to life, even more so than his words already do. It gives us an insight into these songs that wasn’t previously there and rightfully puts the focus on Marianne Ihlen and the soul she shared with Leonard Cohen. The film is one of Nick Broomfield’s best, it celebrates the pain and pleasure of the artist in love. To quote Cohen’s most famous song about Ihlen, “It’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”