Review: “Marianne & Leonard” looks at love after the song has ended

The new film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love delves into the relationship between songwriter Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen

by Steve Murray

July 16, 2019

Featured image: A photo of Marianne Ihlen from the film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Among the recent summertime parade of biographical documentaries – The Quiet One, Echo in the Canyon, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am the latest is probably my favorite. While you don’t need to be a committed Leonard Cohen fan, it’s a plus when watching Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, opening in Atlanta on July 26 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Springs Cinema and Taphouse

This is more than a biography of the Montreal-born, international singer-songwriter, who died in 2016. Yes, it sketches in the promises and frustrations of his early poet-novelist days, the rising hum of his singer-songwriter career, the years of stardom and selfishness, the creation of possibly the ballad of a half-century (the endlessly covered “Hallelujah”) and enormous reversals of fortune. His career can seem both small and vast, intimate and universal. (His five years in a Buddhist monastery also lends a handy spiritual element). You can believe both that Cohen was a serial, thoughtless bedder of countless, unremembered backstage girls, but also a bone-deep feminist who said, “I can’t wait till women take over.” 

Career milestones aside, what gives Words of Love its lasting power is the relationship at its core. First sparked on the sun-drenched island of Hydra in the early ’60s, and ending on separate continents in ’16, the on-and-never-really-off love affair between Cohen and his muse, Marianne Ihlen, is the movie’s real subject. When they met, she was the Norwegian wife of a temperamental novelist and mother to seven-year-old son Axel (who would become a collateral victim of the pursuit of pleasure by the adults around him). 

Marianne was the inspiration for the song “So Long, Marianne,” though on first hearing it she snarked to Cohen, “I’m certainly glad that song wasn’t written for me.” (As a matter of lyrical expediency, he’d Americanized her name; in reality it was pronounced “Mah-ree-ah-nuh,” not the “May-ree-ann” of the tune.) She’s also credited as inspiration for “Bird on a Wire,” but once she left her husband for the brooding Jewish-Canadian poet, her importance and power as a muse extended far beyond the playlist.

A Photo of Leonard Cohen from the film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

When fame arrived, their union became unbalanced, with the benefits mainly accruing on Cohen’s side of the scale. He was a hound dog, as smitten with easy lays as the mild-mannered Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman confessed he likewise was in The Quiet One. Of course, not all of Cohen’s women-on-the-side were groupies. Take Janis Joplin. Cohen took Marianne to see Joplin in concert, but kept secret from her his offstage tryst with the singer – bittersweet inspiration for “Chelsea Hotel,” the veiled song about an unnamed Joplin “giving me head in an unmade bed.” He kept his muse and his conquests on parallel but separate tracks. A setup like that can’t last forever. 

Interviewed onscreen, Aviva Layton, wife of the poet Irving, who was a mentor of Leonard’s, sympathizes with Marianne’s struggle to bridge the gap between Cohen as an artist and Cohen as a partner. “She wanted what I wanted,” Layton says, referencing her own marriage. “She wanted to be with him, and you cannot be with Leonard in that sense.” 

The documentary’s director, Nick Broomfield, in one of the occasional voiceovers that pepper his films, speculates about Cohen that “he couldn’t give himself to [women], because he couldn’t give himself away.” Ihlen herself, in one of the interview excerpts heard through the film, admits, “I wanted to put him in a cage, lock him up and swallow the key. He was always so sought after by everyone… It destroyed me.” 

Singer Judy Collins is among the film’s talking heads. When, in the 1960s, Cohen sought her out, uncertain whether he was a songwriter or not, Collins was so dazzled by his shy rendition of “Suzanne” that she almost single-handedly became responsible for launching his career. And for instigating the disastrous (for Ihlen) move from Hydra to New York. 

Collins recalls a brusque, late encounter with a weary Marianne, who said, “‘I just wanted to tell you that you ruined my life.’”

Meanwhile, Cohen was finding ways to ruin his own. The nonstop LSD trips, the nonstop anonymous sex. Then he fell in range of a marriage-minded opportunist named Suzanne (not the inspiration for the song), whose iron grasp on Cohen ended that phase of his relationship with Ihlen – and sent both muse and poet on separate courses for the rest of their years. It wasn’t a bitter end. Cohen had kids with, and eventually divorced, Suzanne. Ihlen herself married a nice oil executive and step-mothered his children. 

The onetime, severed lovers from Hydra reconnected long-distance in 2016, when both were terminally ill, thousands of miles apart, but able to connect in one last, heart-stirring exchange. It gives the documentary its title. 

A photo of Marianne Ihlen from the film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

Marianne & Leonard also covers some of the strange digressions in Cohen’s career. Producer John Lissauer recalls how Cohen ditched him with no explanation midway through recording Rebecca, an album that never coalesced. Instead, the disastrous, Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man came out instead. (Suzanne is the woman working a sultry pout on that album cover.) A rapprochement seven years later, as abrupt as Cohen’s desertion, led to Lissauer producing and arranging “Hallelujah.” 

Ironically, the label executives hated it. The song killed Lissauer’s career and sent Cohen taking cover for five years in that Californian monastery (we see footage of him performing menial duties as personal servant to one of the monks). Then came financial disaster, and Cohen’s mandatory, phoenix-like return to the stage — one of the unlikeliest career resurgences in pop music history. 

In his previous films, Marianne & Leonard’s director Broomfield has inserted himself (his theories, his prejudices, his leading questions) in distracting, attention-seeking ways. He’s a paparazzo of documentarians, drawn to scandal-brushed, tragic or absurd public figures, giving us films about Whitney Houston, Sarah Palin, Aileen Wuornos, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. And he’s all over the place in Marianne & Leonard, too, but he deserves to be.  

In the small world of this movie, it turns out that Broomfield himself was a young lover himself of Marianne Ihlen during a trip to Hydra. They kept in touch. So he has a more legitimate connection to this story than he sometimes pretends to have in his other films. He claims that it was Ihlen who encouraged him to make his first film. In turn, he drove her to a doctor for one of several abortions she had while involved with Cohen, who didn’t want to deal with kids in his early years. Broomfield’s personal stakes in the ballad of Leonard and Marianne gives Marianne & Leonard an emotional ballast. Without – surprisingly – drawing too much attention to himself in this film, he comes across as a sympathetic witness, left humming by himself after the song has ended. 

Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century. 

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