She was a sun-bleached blonde Norwegian and he was a Canadian with very black hair. Neither thought of themselves as attractive, but each had no difficulty in enjoying a succession of partners in the ‘free love’ 1960s. They met on Hydra, an idyllic Greek island where you could live on $1000 US dollars a year. They were Marianne Ihlen, a single mother with a young son called Axel, and Leonard Cohen, at that time a writer trying to create good novels and poetry. Together, they are the subjects of Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.
Broomfield’s splendid documentary has interesting unseen contemporary film clips of them both on Hydra: typical holiday snapshots, some of them faded and damaged, the poor quality a sign that there’s not much available, compared to the wealth of later material on Cohen. The romance lasted about eight years, but it gradually faded, partly because Cohen insisted on going back to Canada and the U.S for six months of every year. He did publish a couple of novels: the readable The Favorite Game and the drug-fuelled complete mess Beautiful Losers, but it was Judy Collins who, as claimed in the film, dragged him onto the stage as a singer. His fame grew, as did his enjoyment of groupies and Janis Joplin, and his departure from both Hydra and Marianne became inevitable.
Hydra looked idyllic then, but the film reveals a darker side. Many of the expats’ lives ended in failure, some in suicide. Axel, Marianne’s son, suffered from mental illness and became institutionalised. Post-Cohen, Marianne continued much as before, perhaps enjoying notoriety as his Muse, especially for the eponymous hit ‘So Long, Marianne’ and then ‘Bird on a Wire’. She eventually ceased being a lotus-eater and went back to Norway to be a secretary and marry a ‘nice man’. However, she did keep in touch with Cohen and she did attend a late concert, singing along to ‘her’ song, smiling still with love in her eyes.
Broomfield himself was one of Marianne’s lovers, and this shows in his reverence, portraying her in a particularly positive way. Cohen not so much; some clips make him look unsavoury in today’s #MeToo enlightenment.
Most of this doc features talking heads, a traditional format that fills the gap in available filmed material. How different it would be now in iPhone world! The heads do talk a lot of interesting stuff, Broomfield having assembled people with something fascinating to add. Had there been more source filmed material, then an Asif Kapadia Amy-style treatment with no voiceovers might have been more compelling.