Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an epic poem dedicated to Marianne Ihlen and the great Leonard Cohen. The latter was a struggling writer who would become one of the 20th century’s greatest singer-songwriters, while the former was his Norwegian lover and muse. Their story is tangled and confused, told through a haze of drink, drugs and the mists of time, however Broomfield’s film is as wonderfully composed as one of Cohen’s songs. It might be dark, but it’s also filled with humour and intamacy.
Words of Love is melodic and melancholic, a piece which looks at a relationship riddled with flaws, yet one which would ultimately last half a century. It’s a film which shows us the woman behind the man and the man behind the legend. It illustrates that nobody is perfect and that the couple’s time in the Greek island of Hydra was a troublesome as it was iconic.
After watching Words of Love you could argue that without Marianne Ihlen, there may have been no Leonard Cohen – after all, she did inspire two of his greatest and most iconic songs: So Long, Marianne, and inspired Cohen to write Bird on a Wire. The film also shows how Cohen needed his time away from Ihlen in order to spur the creative fire in his songwriting. Hydra was a hedonistic world, one filled with assorted zeotropic substances and it was the ruination of many artists who inhabited there in the 1960s. The island took many casualties, including Ihlen’s son Alexi, a boy who grew-up in a world of drugs and who was never quite able to escape them. That’s not to say that Cohen broke free from that world unscathed – his drug taking and womanising remained unabated throughout the next decade or so. While his career may have been on a high so was his mind. However, Marianne Ihlen didn’t have such a focus and when her relationship with Cohen fell apart she had no anchor, drifting aimlessly through Europe and the US.
Littered with fantastic archive footage and interviews with those who knew Cohen and Ihlen best at the time (including director Broomfield who was Ihlen’s sometime lover), Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a film which targets its subjects with great clarity and poignancy. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it leans heavily on making Cohen something of a drugged-out cad. He’s undeniably flawed, but the film does make him seem as the least sympathetic person on display.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a well crafted documentary, which offers a deep insight into Cohen and Ilhen’s relationship. You won’t need to be a fan of Leonard Cohen’s work or know of his relationship with Marianne Ihlen – Nick Broomfield’s film will hold the attention regardless of your knowledge or interest – and that’s the sign of a great documentary.