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Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love


Featuring Nancy Bacal, Jan Christian Mollestad, Jeffrey Brown, Helle Goldman, Richard Vick, Aviva Layton, Judy Collins, Julie Felix, John Simon, Ron Cornelius, Billy Donovan, George Slater, Judy Scott, John Lissauer, Don Lowe, Nick Broomfield and archival footage of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen.

Directed by Nick Broomfield.

Distributed by Roadside Attractions. 97 minutes. Not Rated.

Leonard Cohen was a bit older – well into his thirties – when he first decided to give music a try. He was a man of many experiences even then. He had written three acclaimed books of poetry and two novels. However, he was looking for something new in his life when he moved from his native Montreal to the Greek Island of Hydra. (He originally went there to write his second novel Beautiful Losers, before the idea of music became a reality to him.)

This is where he met Marianne Ihlen, a divorced Norwegian blonde beauty, at a local store. Ihlen is little remembered today, and if she is at all it is as a lover of singer songwriter Cohen and being the inspiration for several classic songs like “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” (Ihlen pointed out some birds on a telephone line to Cohen and suggested he write a song about it.)

However, Ihlen was used to being in the life of writers – her ex-husband was a Norwegian author named Axel Jensen. On Hydra, Cohen and Ihlen settled into a relationship which only lasted a few years but had a profound effect on Cohen’s life and work.

Decades after they moved on to other relationships, Ihlen died of leukemia in 2016. This was mere months before Cohen also succumbed to the same disease. Upon hearing of her impending death, Cohen wrote a note to his dying lover. “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, your Leonard.”

There is filmed footage of a bed-ridden Marianne being read this note late into Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, and it is heartbreaking, mostly for the sweetly joyful and grateful way that the dying woman received the words. They were apart for decades at that point, but they were still soulmates.

In many ways the early parts of Words of Love are more Marianne’s story than it is the story of Leonard Cohen – undoubtedly mostly because director Broomfield was more part of her orbit than his. (She was a good friend and briefly a lover of his as well. He only knew Leonard, at least at first, through her.) Then, as Leonard’s stardom starts to take off, the movie becomes much like the singer’s life – trotting off into different directions and experiences with music stardom and drug abuse; returning to Marianne for short periods, less and less often.

Cohen was in many ways a very private man – except of course through his writings. There have been a few documentaries over the years which have tried to see through the crack – assuming that would be where the light comes in – but were only allowed to see what Cohen was willing to show.

Which may be why Broomfield decided to make this a look at a couple rather than focusing completely on the musician. Marianne had great insight into the man, but make no mistake, in many ways he was a mystery to her, too. He was a mystery to himself. So, even though we do get a greater insight into who Leonard Cohen was and what he did through the eyes of Marianne – as well as through the eyes of friends, bandmates and contemporaries – the man remains something of a cipher.

This makes sense. Leonard Cohen was always searching. Always trying to find the perfect phrase, the perfect image. Famously, Cohen wrote 80 verses – most rarely or never used – of his best-known song, “Hallelujah.” Decades after he recorded it, he was still revising and trying to perfect the lyrics. If you look at different recorded versions of the song – and there have been over 300 cover versions of it beyond Leonard’s studio version and several released live versions of Cohen performing it – most will have slight variations, different verses and lyrics, words swapped out of time, all trying to find the “the secret chord that David played to please the Lord.”

Perfectionism like this does not just show in his art, it shows in all aspects of his life. And through all the years, Cohen always refused to explain what his song – his songs – were about. The words should speak for themselves. That was up to the listener to decide.

In many ways, Words of Love gives us perhaps the most intimate portrait of the man yet, but the film is still held at arm’s length. There are some facts, some foibles, some cracks in everything. However, the real Leonard Cohen is ephemeral, a bit fuzzy. In a strange way, it is up to the viewer to decide. In certain ways, everyone will be right. In other ways, everyone will be wrong.

I think Leonard Cohen would like that continued confusion. I also think he would probably be flattered and a little surprised that we still care enough to try and figure it out.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: July 5, 2019.

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