Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Rating: 5

By Jason Solomons 

For a documentary film maker Nick Broomfield is a pretty well-known figure. He’s always inserting himself into the work, becoming familiar in the 1990s for his white T-shirt and jeans holding a boom mic while confronting, say, a serial killer (Aileen Wuornos), a volatile rock goddess (Kurt & Courtney) or a Hollywood whistleblower (remember Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madame?)

His insertion into the love story of Marianne & Leonard takes things to another level of personal involvement and results in Broomfield’s most emotionally powerful and beautiful film yet. I think it’s one of the year’s best, too.

Words of Love charts the romance between singer Leonard Cohen and a Norwegian beauty Marianne Ihlen who became his muse and the subject of one of his most famous and most tender songs, So Long Marianne. She was also, briefly, the young Nick Broomfield’s lover.

The story centres on the Greek isle of Hydra where Cohen and Marianne met in the early 1960s. As someone recalls, it was a place of  ‘writing and lovemaking and bathing and drinking and talking in the sun.’ An artistic community of travellers basically colonised the island, setting up a utopia of free love, drugs and philosophy. 

Cohen found there the flip side to his life in a respectable Jewish family from Montreal. Somehow he found himself on this sun-drenched, time-forgotten isle and plunged into the micro-world of artists and lotus-eaters who had gathered for an alternative life-style. 

If it all sounds rather insufferable as a place – a sort of 1960s Love Island, only with people who can actually read – Broomfield’s film captures the allure of the waters and the beauty of the skies. It looks like the best summer holiday ever.

Cohen wrote his novel Beautiful Losers there, tapping away in the scorching sun through the summer of 1966 while Marianne took care of the lunches and the drinks. She was with another man when Cohen arrived, and had a son who every one called (and still calls) Little Axel, but her previous life seems to have been easily shed when she took up with Leonard, who was clearly charming and bright and reasonably handsome, although not yet any sort of singer.

It was only in 1967, on a return to Montreal that Cohen re-invented himself as a singer, fitting the words of a poem, Suzanne, to music he original wanted Judy Collins to sing. But once he’d overcome his nerves and reservations about his own voice, Cohen was an instant success, up there with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon amid the Jewish folk heroes.

It was in 1968 that young law student Broomfield pops in, visiting Hydra after leaving a cruise with his parents. Broomfield’s narration reveals he remains incredulous to this day that Marianne – though pining for Leonard who was now on tour – might have fancied him, but he became intoxicated by the free-spirited nature of the life on Hydra and was soon under her spell.

Using faded photographs, bleached out home movie footage and the recollections of some Hydra survivors, Broomfield summons up an atmosphere of indulgence and bliss, but soon ushers in clanging notes of despair.

Cohen’s long absences take their toll on Marianne, as do the drink and drugs and free love on the island. Cohen seems to have taken the promiscuous mindset of Hydra on the road with him and he’s shown with women in every city. Leonard holes up with Janis Joplin in The Chelsea Hotel and won’t allow Marianne to even visit. There’s a cruelty to it all and yet, her heart on the verge of breaking, Marianne clings to her idyll, to Hydra. Leonard Cohen does too, even on his 23-day-long acid trips. 

Broomfield’s film manages to find their love in everything over the years, even in Leonard’s famous years of exile in a monastery. It’s impossibly romantic, which isn’t the sort of thing one usually says about a documentary, but you never feel he’s straining to make the point.

Leonard and Marianne, even through the heartache, clearly had an enduring, pure and true love and this wistful, gorgeous movie will prompt you to look back at your own love stories – the long ones, the bad ones and the brief moments that can last a lifetime in your heart.