Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is Nick Broomfield’s poignant, moving documentary about an enduring relationship between soulmates.

Old Friends

by Alexa Dalby

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen met on the unspoilt Greek island of Hydra. The golden couple fell in love and lived in an arty, drug-filled community in sunlit idyllic Sixties bliss. Ihlen was a beautiful blonde, Norwegian single parent of a son, Axel. She had a kind, perceptive, generous nature that encouraged and facilitated others to achieve. Cohen was a complex character who referred to her as his ‘muse’ while he wrote his novel Beautiful Losers in the house they shared and she is the subject of his most famous songs, when he later became a world-famous poet, singer and musician.

But the primitive island and its close-knit artistic community was a kind of pre-lapsarian paradise that could not last. Copious use of LSD created casualties in its wake.

Cohen’s career finally took off and he returned to America. He continued to be irresistible to women, and a womaniser himself. Though Marianne followed him there, their relationship could not survive New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel and the musicians who passed through it.

When is a documentary not a documentary? Can its maker be too personally involved or does it give him unique insider insights? Celebrated documentary maker Nick Broomfield, when a law student in the Sixties, met Marianne when on holiday on Hydra. In those heady days of free love, he was thrilled that the older woman had an affair with him. When she and Cohen had finally broken up, Marianne came to Britain and – almost unbelievably – stayed with Nick in Cardiff. She encouraged him to make his first documentary. Now Marianne and Leonard is his homage to her.

Broomfield’s film has a compelling narrative about Marianne that unrolls with striking use of footage he shot during the time he knew Marianne – poignant footage of her as a free spirit on Hydra – edited with archive footage from numerous sources. Marianne and Leonard had an emotional bond for the rest of their lives, famously dying within a few months of each other when, still physically separated, in their eighties, after Leonard Cohen had sent an intensely moving letter of farewell to his ‘old friend’. Their story is compellingly told. Cohen’s life is well-known but now at last, through Broomfield’s wonderful film, Marianne too gets the recognition she so richly deserves.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is released on 26 July 2019 in the UK.

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