Jewish International Film Festival Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a flawed look at a bohemian love story

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a documentary about music’s biggest bohemian and his muse. Poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen and his lover, Marianne Ihlen had a rich and complex relationship, before they both passed away in 2016. This documentary is like a love letter to their passion; a flawed yet visceral look at an intimacy that – like a bird on a wire – negotiated warmth and elusiveness.

This documentary is directed and narrated by Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Whitney: Can I Be Me). This film is rather unbalanced in its approach, because it veers into hagiography territory. It is apparent that Broomfield has a lot of love and respect for his two subjects. As it turns out, Broomfield actually had a relationship of his own with Ihlen, something he divulges during his narration. It’s a disclosure that feels a tad unnecessary, until you realise that this vivacious and engaging woman encouraged many artists, even though she did not pursue art of her own.

It should come as no surprise that this story is weighted more towards Cohen’s story than his lover’s. This is especially true in the latter half, where we learn about Cohen’s recording “Hallelujah” and his period living in a Buddhist monastery. The first half is about how Marianne and Leonard met at the idyllic Greek island of Hydra. Marianne was escaping her first marriage to a Norwegian author and she brought along her young son, Axel, for the adventure.

Cohen found himself in Greece working on his second and final novel, Beautiful Losers. The pair fell madly in love and spent time supporting each other. She tended to his physical needs, bringing him food and drink while he toiled away in the sun. Cohen meanwhile, was very receptive to her emotional needs. The pair basked in the gorgeous weather like many of the other expats at the time. It was paradise, except that it wasn’t to last.

In this film, Cohen is presented as a tortured artist. He slowly retreats from Marianne’s arms and the pair engage in an on-again, off-again relationship. Instead, he found and sought comfort in the beds of many women. He also pivoted in his career and became a singer after his novel was panned. He would write songs like “Bird on A Wire” and “So Long, Marianne,” thanks to her influence. Old friends and bandmates reminisce about the couple’s relationship, but Broomfield downplays the more toxic aspects of it. Instead, he paints a portrait of a spark-ridden, old-fashioned romance yet one can only imagine how tragic it was for Ihlen as Cohen retreated further and further away.

While Marianne is presented as the more saintly subject in this piece, you can’t help but feel like a lot of her story is missing. We learn that she did remarry a sweet Norwegian man and they settled in their homeland. She also received a touching love letter from Cohen whilst she was on her deathbed. It’s strange that this film lets you into such a private moment on the one hand, yet at other points allows the subject to remain an enigma or mystery.

Marianne & Leonard is a sweet and slow film that meanders through some chapters of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen’s love affair. It is a documentary that can be as complicated as their relationship; touching and poignant in parts and at others almost like a Leonard Cohen biography. While the intentions are good in giving Cohen’s muse her due credit, you can’t help but feel like there was a better film lurking beneath the surface. Where it could have screamed “hallelujah,” instead it’s purely songs of love and hate.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love screens as part of the Jewish International Film Festival. For more information head HERE.

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