'Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A piquant look at a famous musician and his muse.

Nick Broomfield's latest looks at late Canadian singer Leonard Cohen's love story with his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen.

A twisty network of amorous, creative and, at this point, historical impulses drive Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, an odd duck of a documentary that delves knowingly into intimate aspects of the relationship between American musician Leonard Cohen and his 1960s lover and muse Marianne Ihlen, but only intermittently gets to the bottom of things.

Veteran British documentary director Nick Broomfield, who counts among his many films the music-centric Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac and Whitney: Can I Be Me?, certainly knows of what he speaks (he himself was briefly one of Marianne’s lovers). The doc swells with wonderful archival footage that immerses you in the hedonistic environment the principals occupied, but in ranging wide it somehow doesn’t go deep, or at least deep enough, into its twin protagonists to satisfy as the full story. Still, it’s a welcome addition to the bulging collection of films about the allure and the treacherous downside of the counterculture era.

Youthful seeker Cohen, a well-raised lad from Montreal, was on an extended trip through Europe in 1960 when he met the Norwegian beauty on the Greek island of Hydra, known as a quiet enclave for international artists and, increasingly, druggies.

Abundant film footage of the couple, Marianne’s young son Axel and the paradisiacal environment leave no question as to why the place captivated seekers, and there are amusing shots of Cohen, sitting shirtless in the burning sun and allegedly on amphetamines, struggling to write a big novel, Beautiful Losers, which flopped on its publication in 1966.

To be sure, theirs was a great love story, but Cohen’s interest turned to music, which led him to the U.S. and into the arms of many, many other women. As Cohen himself explains it in an old interview, “I was always escaping, I was always trying to get away.” A lively Judy Collins is a key witness here to Cohen’s transition from failed novelist to celebrated singer-songwriter, recalling his low opinion of his own voice and petrifying fear of performing, including one night when he fled the stage and would only return if Collins accompanied him.

It was Collins, of course, who first recorded Cohen’s “Suzanne” in 1966, while his first album followed the next year. Music, it was now clear, would be his career, and Marianne would fade into the backdrop while her ex-boyfriend embarked on a long hedonistic odyssey, chalking up all the conquests he could manage after emerging as a celebrated musical figure.

The “Marianne and Leonard” part of the film is thus put on pause as Cohen pursues his career, with details of Marianne’s up-and-down life, including the sorry story of her son Axel, slipped in from time to time. Bulking the film out to feature length are a host of interviews with some of Cohen’s surviving professional cohorts, who have been encouraged to recall in detail the drug-addled concerts, tours and especially the singer-songwriter’s sexual escapades, which they agree were legendary. To this end, Broomfield has amassed as much footage as possible of Cohen happily wading into crowds of fawning young women at concerts and parties.

Then there is Cohen’s retreat into religious life. Always a sincere Jew, he was at the same time a perpetual seeker and from 1994-99 lived in a Buddhist monastery in California. Needless to say, Marianne doesn’t enter the picture during this period, although briefly mentioned is his former business manager’s theft of $5 million from Cohen’s retirement fund, which wiped him out and forced his return to touring and a smashingly successful late career.

At this point, Marianne does re-enter the story, however tangentially, as she attends one of his concerts and he writes her a final, moving note shortly before her death; he followed her just three months later.

Marianne & Leonard more makes note of the depth and complexities of Cohen’s life than it gets to the bottom of it all. Like many driven artists, Cohen had to go his own way and women served, by far, as his principle inspiration. Marianne was the first, the most important and the most enduring.

Production companies: BBC, Kew Media Group
With: Helle Goldman, Richard Vick, Aviva Layton, Judy Collins, Julie Felix, John Simon, Ron Cornelius, Jan Christian Mollestad, Billy Donovan, Mary Macha, Don Lowe
Director: Nick Broomfield
Producers: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin, Shani Hinton, Kyle Gibbon
Executive producers: Charles Finch, Patrick Holland, Jan Cristian Mollestad, Lisa Savage, Tony Palmer, Rudi Dolezal
Director of photography: Barney Broomfield
Editor: Marc Hoeferlin
Music: Nick Laird-Clowes
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

98 minutes