Marianne and Leonard: An Unconventional Love

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)
Directed by Nick Broomfield
Roadside Attractions, 102 minutes, R (for drugs, brief nudity, sexual frankness)

What is love? Is it gazing into the eyes of another and seeing no others? Is it a fever that never breaks? Lifelong faithfulness? Continuous mutual commitment? A partnership of equals? Two horses pulling the same cart? Fireworks, roses, and chocolates?

If you think love is contained by any of the above, you might wish to steer clear of Marianne and Leonard, the new documentary about the relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen. Theirs was an unconventional love that was more akin to the yearning of a poet for a muse that one doesn't always wish to find.

It began in 1960, when Cohen was an unknown writer fleeing Montreal's frigid winters for the sun-kissed Greek isle of Hydra. There he met Marianne Ihlen, an about-to-be divorced mother of a young son. Cohen was Jewish, dark, and brooding; she was Norwegian, blonde, and free-spirited. If you'd like to extrapolate this into a yin/yang sort of thing, you wouldn't be far from the mark.

This documentary is from director Nick Broomfield, who also gave us Kurt and Courtney (1998), so you know he doesn't shy from uncomfortable material. The relationship between Ihlen and Cohen was not always healthy or happy. If you know Cohen's song "So Long Marianne," you already know a lot about the arc of their time together and apart. The muse thing didn't always go as planned. Cohen's desire to be a Canadian lion of letters was dealt a rude blow when all but a few reviewers trashed Beautiful Losers, the novel he wrote on Hydra. One critic called it "verbal masturbation" and Canadians seldom talk like that! Even before this, though, Cohen exhibited symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder. When he was in Hydra, he thought he should be in Montreal; when in Montreal, his thoughts drifted to Hydra. His relationship with Ihlen was like this as well. He yearned deepest for Marianne when she was absent; when she went to him, fire turned to ice.

Retsina, drugs, and free love didn't help mood swings. Neither was faithful and Broomfield reminds us that he too was one of Marianne's lovers. One also gets the sense that Ihlen wasn't always a good mother. Still, it is fair to comment–as so many feminist historians have–that the Sixties' emphasis on free love was often a trap for women. The pill and sexual openness brought with them the expectation that women should yield to male desire. To put it another way, the veil of sexual mystery was lifted and revealed a wall of patriarchy.

It's also fair to observe that Cohen, even when depressed on Hydra, was a better person before his poetry and songs brought him fame. With it came egoism; as Cohen's star ascended, Ihlen's waned. Nonetheless, it never burned out completely, no matter who was with whom. Their love was genuine and literally followed them from Hydra to the grave. Though they had not been together for decades, Cohen pledged his love to Marianne as she lay dying and he was destined to follow three months later.

Bloomfield's film makes excellent use of available footage, especially that from Cohen's 1976 Bird on a Wire tour, where see him musing on Marianne when he's so high that his eyes look like two dark saucers tucked under his brow. We also see snippets from other interviews, including his surprisingly nonchalant response to leaving a Buddhist monastery after three years (1994-97) to discover he had been embezzled and is broke. His comeback was astounding, as was his reinvention in the early 21st century as a behatted, suited, cool septuagenarian who often looked–can you believe it–happy!

Alas, we have less of Marianne in the film. Though she gets top billing, the film should more accurately be called Leonard and a Dash of Marianne. She flits in and out of Cohen's orbit like a Nordic Tinkerbell. I longed to know what she thought of Cohen's other muse, Suzanne Elrod, or of his conquests of everyone from Joni Mitchell to Rebecca De Mornay. Did she care about his legion of one-night stands? One can't fault Bloomfield for not having material that doesn't exist, but a bit more critical analysis might have served to underscore the depth of the Ihlen/Cohen devotion to each other. Most of the talking heads, especially Judy Collins (wearing a horrifying wig!) address Cohen's magnetism and brilliance, not his melancholy. This isn't a hagiography, but it does sometimes lean in that direction.

Whatever its shortcomings, Marianne and Leonard is a film that makes you walk away feeling perplexed. It also sticks with you and, in my case, I liked it the more I (if I might) mused upon it. It is as I posed at the start of my review: a love story. It might not make you comfortable, but I have always maintained that a relationship only needs to make sense to those who are in it.

Rob Weir

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