Now Playing: Nick Broomfield's 'Marianne & Leonard' on Poet/Songwriter Leonard Cohen and Lover Who Inspired Him
Marianne Ihlen proved key to Cohen's creative life, but does 'muse' describe her? 'It's a strange kind of 18th century term'
When Leonard Cohen came to live on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 he was a young Canadian poet and author at work on an ambitious novel, Beautiful Losers. The Greek sun and the island culture agreed with him, but even more important to his creative blossoming was a woman he met there named Marianne Ihlen.
The story of the powerful romantic bond they formed and what it meant to both Cohen and Ihlen is explored in Nick Broomfield's new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. The film is now playing at multiple locations in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Knoxville, Tennessee and Long Beach, California [details here].
The hardest challenge I had with this film was making something that was very personal and how to integrate that very personal experience with a portrait of these two [people].
Marianne, a Norwegian beauty, had come to Hydra with her husband and son, but her marriage was collapsing. When Cohen and Ihlen met there was an immediate attraction.
"From reading the letters and stuff it felt very much like it was Marianne who was being courted by Leonard in their initial relationship," Broomfield tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "I think that probably changed over time in a way that relationships do change. Maybe it became more that he was the one being pursued by her."
In Marianne, Cohen found not only a romantic partner but a deeply empathetic person who helped him on his artistic journey.
"I think she was instrumental in encouraging Leonard or assisting his development from writer and poet to someone who set his words to music," Broomfield comments. "She was the one who was there when that development happened."
In Leonard, Ilhen found someone who propelled her own personal growth and helped her get past the breakup of her marriage.
"Leonard saved her life," a friend comments in the documentary.
Most commentaries on the film have described Marianne as Leonard's 'muse.' But Broomfield isn't sure that's the proper word.
"It's a strange kind of 18th century term," the director observes. "I think she had the ability of realizing the strength of people and encouraging them to actually follow their instincts and take a risk, do the more difficult thing and that's an amazing ability. I don't know if 'muse' is really a sufficient-- the right expression for that. I think it's something actually very creative."
Broomfield himself felt the inspiring glow of Marianne's attention. They were lovers too for a time on Hydra after Broomfield came to the island in 1968.
"I was just 20. I think Marianne was probably 31 or so. I couldn't believe my luck, really," Broomfield recalls. "She was very beautiful, older than me, knew the island and was just a wonderful free spirit. So the experience was really overwhelming when I first met her... In my own case she very much encouraged me to follow my abilities as a possible filmmaker and gave me the encouragement to actually make my first film."
Broomfield didn't know Cohen on Hydra -- they would not meet until the 1990s. As a documentarian he had to balance his own secondary role in the story against his larger focus.
"The hardest challenge I had with this film was making something that was very personal and how to integrate that very personal experience with a portrait of these two [people]," he states. "I hadn’t really done a very personal film before and I think the challenge of the struggle was how to integrate the two stories in a way that they didn't detract from each other."
The film captures that halcyon era of free love and other explorations -- into hallucinogens, for instance. Cohen avidly experimented with drugs, in part seeking to escape the dark nimbus of depression that always loomed on his horizon.
As the 60s wore on Cohen began to spend increasing time away from Hydra and Marianne, especially as his singing career took off. His long absences owed something to a fear of constricting emotional attachments.
"I was always leaving," Cohen comments in the film. "I was always trying to get away." As mutual friend Aviva Layton puts it in Marianne & Leonard, "Poets do not make great husbands. You can't own them. They're elusive creatures."
Cohen, by his own admission, constantly pursued romantic liaisons with women -- Janis Joplin among them. The charge he felt from his encounters with women -- sexual or non-sexual -- pervades his life and work. His song "Suzanne," a dream-like ode to the curative, inspirational and perhaps seductive power of women, contains these lyrics:
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
"He had to have a woman all the time," Cohen's road manager notes in Marianne & Leonard.
Ihlen, who appears to have become increasingly attached to the poet-singer over time, suffered as the relationship faltered.
"It was killing me," she says of the diminution of the romantic connection between them. Decades later, her voice still cracked with emotion as she described the pain of definitively breaking with Leonard. She would eventually go back to Norway and marry another man.
I asked Broomfield if one should find fault with Cohen for his possible shortcomings as a partner to Marianne.
"I don't know that it's helpful to judge in that way," he replied. "I think my role as a filmmaker was to tell the story of his complexities so that we understand him as far as we can, and their relationship. I think it was a difficult relationship but it was a relationship of an enduring love throughout their lives and I don't think Marianne for a moment, despite all the difficulties, would ever say that she regretted having the relationship that she did with Leonard. I think it was the most important relationship in her life and she learned and benefitted from it. I think she kind of followed him on his spiritual search, so they had a very profound relationship."
Cohen and Ihlen both died in 2016, within a few months of each other. The film shows how their emotional bond remained intact until the end.
Leonard Cohen performs "So Long, Marianne," a song he wrote about Marianne Ihlen
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love marks the fourth music-related documentary from Broomfield. His wide body of work includes Kurt & Courtney (1998), about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love; Biggie and Tupac (2002) about rap rivals Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, and Whitney: Can I Be Me, his 2017 film about Whitney Houston.
"Those films are probably the more commercial ones [I've done] and they're probably the most popular in the sense that they're a history of parts of our culture that people refer to more than they would other things," he notes. "We look to music as somehow the thing that immediately takes us associationally back to a particular moment in our time... It's a very emotional pull that creates probably a much stronger relationship between the audience and the subject than anything else I can think of. And because of that those films have particularly long lives."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.