Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

As someone who was born in this city and a life long Montreal resident I am rather ashamed to say that after seeing this film I now realize I did not know much about Leonard Cohen. Shameful! He is probably our most famous resident world wide. Thankfully this BBC (!) documentary filled in many of the largest gaps.

Directed by Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me, Sarah Palin: You Betcha!), a veteran who has been at the helm of several documentaries about famous people, brings us through the origins of the love story between the two until its final moments. Admittedly, most of the focus is on the more famous half of the duo, but there are moments where Marianne’s life is illuminated. Even during the times where she and Leonard were not together.

Their love story was not your typical one. It was not a case of man meets woman, man falls in love with woman and they live happily ever after. They did meet. They did fall in love, but that is where the usual ends. Most of that has to do with Leonard and his inability (for whatever reasons) to commit to one woman. Leonard loved women. All women. So it seemed like he could not narrow the field down to one.

After publishing a novel in which no one really read, Leonard Cohen gathered what money he had and traveled to Greece. More specifically the island of Hydra. This rather rural small island seemed to have magical aura about it which drew people from around the world in and oftentimes did not let them go. Many an artist came there on vacation and several never left. During the time when Leonard was there it was almost a den of iniquity. There was plenty of sex and drugs to be found and enjoyed. And he indulged.

In the 1950s, Leonard went there to write his next novel, but found himself falling in love with a Norwegian woman named Marianne. Marianne Ihlen was in process of leaving her husband and had her young son Axel with her. Leonard fell under the blonde beauty’s spell and they began to spend every moment together. Every moment which he was not writing in the Greek hot sun.

From the beginning it was not a typical relationship. Not by usual standards, at least. Their relationship was always an open one with both having multiple lovers at most times. What cannot be denied is their love for one another. Marianne became Leonard’s muse. Became the woman who told him he should write songs and become a singer. Was the inspiration behind several of his best known and loved songs.

During the 60s, while he lived partially in Hydra and partially in New York, Leonard became a huge star in the music world and sex symbol with women around the world. He began to tour the world with his folk music after Judy Collins introduced him by recording his song “Suzanne”, which became a huge hit.

It is at this point in which Leonard’s, a man who was depressed for large portions of his life, seeming addictions to sex and drugs began to become painfully apparent. He slept with every woman he could and he was almost always in an LSD haze along with his guitarist Ron Cornelius, who tells much of the tales from those days. All about the women and the drugs. Along with the music. Leonard himself in the voiceovers admits to his narcissism and destructive need to sleep with many women…all women.

Not everything is about Leonard. There are also moments carved out to tell us about Marianne’s life. ABout her eventual return to Norway and marriage. About the mental health issues her son Axel suffered from throughout his life. How she finally settled into a so-called normal life. The connection with Leonard remained, however.

After he spent a period during the 90s in a Buddhist monastary, Leonard returned to the outside world only to discover that his longtime manager, Kelly Lynch, had embezzled most of his money. He was broke. As such, he found himself having to tour again at the age of 74. To the surprise of many, his music stood the test of time and he was once again a global star selling out world wide.

The final and heartbreaking sequence sees the filming of Marianne on her deathbed receiving a short, but eloquent, message from her longtime love. It was:

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

Demonstrating that there was plenty of love always and still between them, the two former lovers died just over three months apart. Poignant.

Though I can in no way claim to be a big Leonard Cohen fan still I found this film about him and his life absolutely captivating. I clung to every morsel divulged and was totally wrapped up on the goings on. Maybe because the film used Cohen and Ihlen’s own words with their voiceovers (from interviews) forming the backbone of the storytelling. It made everything seem real or the truth.

Director Broomfield met both during the late 60s and even was briefly a lover of Marianne’s. He even attributes that he became a filmmaker to Marianne as she encouraged him. A muse to many. They remained friends throughout her life. As such there is definately an affectionate overview and feel to the film. He is definitely a fan of both of his subjects.

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