Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love celebrates a powerful, impossible bond

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love celebrates a powerful, impossible bond
Maybe you were one of the more than 300,000 who took in the Leonard Cohen exhibit in Montreal in 2017. (It’s now at New York’s Jewish Museum, with stops in Copenhagen and San Francisco to follow.) Perhaps you saw the troubadour play 10 years ago as part of his comeback tour. Or you still have his music on vinyl. Regardless, fans of the late philosopher-poet will thrill to see Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, which celebrates the powerful, impossible love between Cohen and Norway’s Marianne Ihlen.

Broomfield is well positioned to tell this story. A slightly younger contemporary, the British filmmaker was Ihlen’s friend and, for a time, one of her lovers. He mentions in passing that she encouraged him to make his first short film while visiting him in London, but for the most part relegates himself to footnote status.

Friends and colleagues and relatives tell most of the story, backed by some wonderful archival footage of the couple, some of it shot by D.A. Pennebaker. Basically, Cohen and Ihlen met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, where she was raising a two-year-old son by herself. “I was his Greek muse who sat at his feet,” she relates in one interview. For her he wrote “So Long, Marianne,” and at her suggestion “Bird on the Wire.” They lived together in Hydra, in New York and in Montreal.

But they lived apart as well, particularly after Cohen met Suzanne Elrod. “Poets do not make great husbands,” notes Aviva Layton, whose former husband, Canadian poet Irving Layton, would always ask his friend: “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”

Cohen did many wrong things, and one of the strengths of Broomfield’s documentary is that it does not shy away from the dark side of hedonism and free love. The Johnstons, an Australian couple who took in and mentored Cohen on Hydra, had lives that ended early and unhappily after they left the island and tried to “re-enter the real world.” Ihlen’s son also had a troubled life. In fact, Cohen seems to been one of the few to both succumb to and survive Hydra’s charms.

Even when no longer a couple, Cohen and Ihlen remained on good terms; when she was near death from leukaemia in 2016, he wrote to her: “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.” He died three months after her. Poets may not make great husbands, but they always know the right thing to say.

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