Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review tender, vivid snapshot of a singer and his ‘muse’

Two love stories are explored in Nick Broomfields riveting documentary the affair between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and one of his own

Nick Broomfields riveting documentary gives us a vivid snapshot of the early 1960s and a complicated, mysterious love story. In this era, the poet and future music star Leonard Cohen fell in love with a beautiful and sensitive Norwegian woman called Marianne Ihlen on the stunning Greek island of Hydra and thought of her as his muse, inspiring songs such as So Long, Marianne and Bird on a Wire.

Or maybe he fell in love with himself, with his own career and own celebrity, touring and travelling far away from Ihlen and having other affairs, while encouraging the Marianne muse legend as part of his melancholy mystique. The truth could lie between the two. Yet maybe this film is about a different love story, a third story of unexpressed love, as Broomfield reveals how, as a young man, he got to know Ihlen at about the same time, and became her friend and confidant in London in the years after that.

The personalities involved could not have been more fascinatingly different: Cohen came from a cultured, refined and well-off Canadian family in Montreal and got his love of music from his charismatic mother Masha, who had a beautiful singing voice. At the beginning of the 60s, he found himself in Hydra in the pre-mass-tourist age. He had become mildly famous or notorious for his experimental novel Beautiful Losers, which he wrote on the island while ingesting huge amounts of drugs and hanging out with other bohemian expats.

Ihlen
Ihlen and Cohen in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love Photograph: Babis Mores/Dogwoof

Ihlen lived there, married (with a child) to the writer Axel Jensen, and her relationship with the handsome and romantic Cohen grew out of a laidback attitude to monogamy. They had a passionate and apparently happy relationship, although as Ihlen is the non-famous (and very private) half of this story, it is difficult to excavate her feelings. But this is a drama about finding yourself that well-known 60s trope. Ihlen found herself through emotional openness, and Cohen ecstatically found himself through switching from literature to music. Its a dramatic example of an artist suddenly discovering what it was he was born to do.

How things played out is revealed in the film by Cohen himself, in terms that inadvertently reveal that the relationship was always a bit semi-detached (on his part). He says that at first, he spent six months of the year in Hydra with Ihlen, and the other six months in Montreal. Then it was four months a year, then two months, then two weeks as his career took off.

How in any case did Ihlen feel about being his muse a designation that now reeks of insufferable male rock-star entitlement? (Some have accused the film of endorsing this attitude: I disagree.) Cohen is quoted speaking with sublime naivety about the sexual politics of the age. He speaks of friendships expressed sexually, and that he was very fortunate because it was the 60s and there was cooperation. Well, yes, maybe, although Cohen might not have noticed how one-sided this co-operation was and, anyway, his drug intake may have prevented him from noticing very much. It was, at all events, indiscreet of him to reveal that his song Chelsea Hotel No 2, about a woman giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street was about Janis Joplin. How Marianne felt about that is not recorded.

There is tenderness and delicacy in how Broomfield addresses himself to the subject of Ihlens life in the years when Cohens career was taking off: she finally returned to Norway and, in the late 1970s, married a nice, sensible man.

Marianne Ihlen emerges as someone of enormous gentleness and dignity, even coming to one of the huge concerts that Cohen did in his old age when he was enjoying a huge second wave of popularity: there is moving footage of her in the front row, singing along. I think he sentimentally and self-indulgently cordoned off in his mind that period of sunlit sensual specialness with Ihlen, vacuum-sealed in plastic like a new LP. As to what she thought, Broomfield leaves it for us to decide.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is released in the UK on 26 July.

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