Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love resets the line between the artiste and the muse
So Long, Marianne — Leonard Cohen’s aching ode to his muse Marianne Ihlen — is a lament dressed as a love song. It is the tenderest break-up anthem, enclosing his plea to leave and astonishment on being left. It is every Cohen song ever. Throughout the runtime, the singer traces the lifetime of his relationship with cherished intimacy, singing every shared-moment with affection, including the farewell like the reason is incidental but the message is everything, like they have to part so that they can meet again, like they can meet only if they part again. In Nick Broomfield’s outing — a deeply intimate, revelatory documentary on the couple — he maps this decade-long relationship that lasted a lifetime.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love begins with the end: Marianne is on her deathbed in 2016 and Cohen sends her a letter expressing “endless love and gratitude”. It is followed by footage from his performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970. Like an impatient lover eager to tell their story, the singer recollects the history behind So Long, Marianne to the crowd; composed keeping his then partner in mind. His eyes look vacant but not restless like he is assured she is there. As the documentary unfolds, it contextualises the need for her to summon him when passing and his certainty of her presence in a sea of strangers.
The couple met at Hydra during the 60s, both fugitives from their past. She had moved from Oslo and was stuck in an unhappy marriage with Norwegian author Axel Jensen. He had come from Montreal looking to make a career out of writing. The idyllic Greek island sucked them in, assisting both to make a home out of a place. It was the age of excesses, open marriages and drugs; a haven for the inspired souls. Cohen would sit under the sun and write while Marianne would tend to him. After his book Beautiful Losers failed to impress the critics, a disheartened Cohen travelled to New York to meet Judy Collins and in there sang Suzanne, a song that will teach an entire generation to love a name with the urgency of a person. On discovering himself as a singer, Cohen started staying more and more in New York and although he called for Marianne and her son Axel (“Have house all I need is my woman and her son”), things were never the same.