Review: Marianne & Leonard’s story has been told before in better films

Nick Broomfield's doc about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen's relationship fails to penetrate the cliché of the poet-muse symbiosis


MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE (Nick Broomfield). 102 minutes. Opens Friday (July 12). See listing. Rating: NNN


Leonard Cohen was a celebrated poet when he came to the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. A place of stark beauty, it was a haven for expatriates from Europe and the Americas, a community grounded in artistic expression, sundry intoxicants and free love. It was on Hydra that Cohen met one of the loves of his life, Marianne Ihlen, a charismatic Norwegian who was in the midst of untethering herself from an unhappy marriage.

The almost-young couple (along with Ihlen’s son) enjoyed several years of idyllic, if intermittent, cohabitation before Cohen’s rebirth as a recording artist – and habitual absconding from domestic repose – created a distance their contract couldn’t bear. This story has been told before, most thoroughly in Sylvie Simmons’ biography I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, and most eloquently in Cohen’s canonical shanty So Long, Marianne. This documentary from British filmmaker Nick Broomfield seeks to chronicle their stories in tandem, yet it lacks structure, introduces little that’s revelatory and fails to penetrate the cliché of the poet-muse symbiosis.

Known for films of a more sensationalist tenor – his previous pairings include Biggie And Tupac and Kurt & Courtney – Broomfield seems to be in a more wistful mood with Marianne & Leonard, presumably because of his personal connection. Broomfield visited Hydra in his youth and became one of Ihlen’s lovers, events described in a voice-over irregular enough to give the impression that Broomfield couldn’t decide how much to inject himself into the narrative. To be fair, Broomfield’s first-person interjections provide extra ballast to Ihlen’s story, which, compared to her famous lover’s, inevitably lacks resource materials.

Marianne & Leonard adheres to a boilerplate documentary style, weaving archival footage and new interviews with subjects such as Judy Collins, who nurtured Cohen’s first forays into music, and guitarist Ron Cornelius, who describes playing gigs with Cohen at psychiatric hospitals. There’s no shortage of fascinating passages, but so many of them simply repurpose highlights from better films, like Donald Brittain and Don Owen’s Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen and Tony Palmer’s Bird On A Wire.

What’s more, Broomfield’s potted chronicle of Cohen’s life seems random and occasionally hagiographic, conveniently dismissing Suzanne Elrod, Cohen’s longtime partner and mother to his children, as ruthless, or noting the commercial failure of Cohen’s Various Positions album while neglecting to note that his subsequent records, I’m Your Man and The Future, were hits.

Ihlen and Cohen died just months apart in 2016. It’s impossible not to be moved by the scene in which Ihlen lies on her deathbed while a friend reads Cohen’s final letter to her: “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.” Theirs is indeed a story of immense poignancy, as complex as any of Cohen’s many ballads of love. Their story may be too poignant and too complex to be lassoed into a workmanlike documentary such as this, but it’s what we have and it’s very much worth watching. 

@chiminomatic

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