Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love – a beautiful way to say goodbye
The young Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra, and they began a doomed affair in paradise. Fledgling film-maker Nick Broomfield was there too
Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, from the film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Photograph courtesy of Roadside Attractions
In 1960, Leonard Cohen was a struggling poet when he arrived on the Greek island of Hydra. Here, he first met Marianne Ihlen, the ex-wife of Norwegian author Axel Jensen and a mother to Axel Jr. Their chaotic romance inspired many of Cohen’s love songs, including Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Bird on the Wire, and So Long, Marianne. He and Ihlen separated in the 1970s, but they kept in touch until 2016, when they died within months of each other.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, the moving new film from Nick Broomfield, presents as a love story for the ages, a story that takes us right up to the moment of Marianne’s death from leukaemia, aged 81, and the final correspondence she received from Cohen. “Dearest Marianne, I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude. Leonard.”
There is, however, a darkness that hangs around the countercultural lifestyles at the heart of the film. For Broomfield, listening to So Long, Marianne – a track characterised by many as “the most loving break-up song ever written” – is as loaded an experience as it was for the woman who inspired it.
“It takes me back to a particular time more than anything else,” says the film-maker. “It wasn’t originally written as a break-up song, of course. Apparently it was originally written as ‘Come on, Marianne’. I think it’s beautiful. Marianne herself was a bit ambivalent about it. But I guess you can understand why. The song came out in 1967 and she was still desperate to make the relationship work, and the song has a finality about it, whether or not it was intended.
“There were other parts of the song that I think that she felt very fondly about: ‘I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.’ I always remember her saying that line came from when Leonard was on acid and he was up to the roof of the record company and he had a crazy temptation to throw himself off of the roof. But the overall associations of the song were painful.”
Even though she was incredibly beautiful and was very desired, that was that was not something that she took any pride in
Long-standing fans of Broomfield’s investigative documentary work are accustomed to seeing the British director doorstepping Suge Knight or tailing Sarah Palin and friends and neighbours of Grim Sleeper killer Lonnie Franklin Jr. In Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, he appears briefly – as a dashing young man and as a returning visitor to Hydra.
“At one point, I wasn’t in it at all,” he explains. “But I found it very hard to structure the film. I needed to get that right. So I wanted to make it like a diary.”
Aged 20, Broomfield ran into Rosalind Runcie while on a cruise with his parents. It was her idea that he should visit Hydra, a hedonistic idyll awash with LSD and marijuana, and frequented by Princess Margaret and Jackie Kennedy. It was a culture shock for Broomfield, who was reading law at Cardiff University at the time.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love official trailer
“It was the uncertainty of being 20 and being with people who have much more experience than I did,” he recalls. “I was it was intoxicating and overwhelming at the same time. People were out of control and I felt very out of my depth, which was kind of wonderful but also quite trippy. It was magical but very alternative. I had never seen anything like it. The funny thing was that it was Lindy Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife, who told me I should go there.”
On Hydra, Broomfield and Marianne Ihlen became lovers during one of Cohen’s lengthy absences. Ever the muse figure, Ihlen, who had met Don’t Look Back director DA Pennebaker during the previous year (the footage of Ihlen on a boat used in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love was shot by Pennebaker in the 1960s), encouraged Broomfield to make his first film, a chronicle of a slum clearance in Cardiff. Ihlen was equally encouraging to the folk singer Julie Felix, who began writing songs on Ihlen’s advice. “Muse” is a tricky word, notes the film-maker, but it is apt.
“She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people,” says Broomfield. “And that’s something a manager would do. Listening to her reminded me of how self-critical she was and how tough she was on herself. Even though she was incredibly beautiful and was very desired, that was that was not something that she took any pride in. And I don’t think she took enough credit for what she did. She wasn’t just bringing the sandwiches along for lunch. She could recognise what people could do. In my case, she encouraged me to put aside my self-doubt and to really investigate film-making. When I met her I was studying law I don’t think I had any intention at that particular moment of making a film. But it was what I needed to do.”
He could love women from a distance, make them feel good, but he wouldn’t give himself to them
Quite aside from the ethics of museship, Cohen emerges as a complicated figure who counts himself “very lucky that my appetite coincided with this very rare . . . some kind of phenomenon that allowed men and women, boys and girls we were, to come together in that kind of union that satisfied both the appetites . . . I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic.”
Said appetites extended to all the girls in all the ports, and heroic quantities of quaaludes, a habit which earned the Canadian artist the nickname Captain Mandrax (after the branded sedative).
The womanising was devastating for Ihlen, who saw less and less of Cohen over their eight-year relationship until, finally, the artist Suzanne Elrod arrived to replace her. “All the girls were panting for him,” recalled Ihlen. “It hurt me so much. It destroyed me. I was on the verge of killing myself for it. I wanted to die.”
Aviva Layton, the second wife of the Canadian poet Irving Layton, who was a close friend of Cohen, notes: “Poets do not make great husbands.” That was especially true of Cohen, she suggests. “He could love women from a distance, make them feel good, but he wouldn’t give himself to them. He couldn’t give himself away.”
“I get the feeling that he was always on a search,” says Broomfield. “Also he was also so into his work. Musicians talk about having chops for a particular thing you do, and Leonard just didn’t have the chops to settle down. It’s a cliche but he wasn’t the marrying kind.”
Ihlen, who went on (post Hydra and Cohen) to live with a science journal editor in the Arctic Circle, wasn’t the only casualty. Her son, Axel, who was initially adopted by Cohen, has spent much of his life in institutions.
I didn’t know Leonard so well. We shared various friends, mainly women
“Axel is now in his 50s and is living in an institution outside Oslo,” says Broomfield. “I think, as Aviva says in the film, there were terrible casualties amongst the children of Hydra. The children didn’t want to go on that ride. They didn’t want to be around parents who were fucking around and drinking and doing whatever they wanted.”
Against all the chaos Broomfield still harbours fond memories of Cohen.
“I didn’t know him so well,” he says. “We shared various friends, mainly women. It was later on in life, about 1990, when we met and up and we talked about Axel, who had already been committed to an institution. He was very concerned. And I saw him at social functions after that. He could be fairly outrageous and very entertaining.”
That doesn’t make Cohen’s callousness any easier to watch from a contemporary #MeToo perspective. (Writing in the National Review, Kyle Smith critiqued the film under the heading: “Leonard Cohen, the male feminist who mistreated women”.) Broomfield, however, is reluctant to make retrospective judgements.
“I guess it’s always very tempting to judge by contemporary values but I’m not sure that gets one very far,” he says. “That’s not in keeping with the prevailing thought at that time. They were living in an extreme version of the social experiment that was the 1960s lifestyle. It was a whole different worldview that I guess we don’t subscribe to anymore. But it was also an interesting time in terms of art and culture and politics.”
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is released on July 26th