It’s almost inevitable that when a documentary filmmaker puts together a story that is personal, the resulting movie will touch us more deeply. And this is certainly the case for director Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Whitney: Can I Be Me, and Biggie and Tupac), whose films often feel sensationalistic and exploitative—like a tabloid newspaper on celluloid. But with Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Broomfield details the fleeting moments when his life as a young, up-and-coming filmmaker intersected with the tumultuous relationship between beautiful, Norwegian-born single mother Marianne Ihlen (on whom he clearly had a lifelong crush) and the man for whom she was a primary muse: writer, poet and eventually singer Leonard Cohen (she was the inspiration for his song “So Long, Marianne”).
The story begins in 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra, where Ihlen and Cohen met while living in a community of creatives exploring painting, sculpting, writing and music. Naturally there was a bit of free love happening as well, so for a brief moment Broomfield was Ihlen’s lover before Cohen began to dominate her world, even taking time away from her young son, whom she clearly loved but also left in the care of others for long stretches while she followed Cohen around the world.
As intimate as Broomfield manages to make his story, his barely veiled feelings about Ihlen tend to slant the film in her favor when he gets to the point when her relationship with Cohen begins to fracture. Cohen was undeniably a bit of a ladies man (today he might be called a sex addict)—there’s actually loads of archival footage (most of which is shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker) of him hitting on woman after his shows, knowing full well a camera is pointed right at him. He always seemed to make his way back to Marianne and their paradise in Hydra, but things eventually ended, which is by no means the end of their story. Broomfield also never misses an opportunity to insert himself into the narrative (which he also narrates), and rightfully so, since he was actually long-time friends with Marianne.
The story of Marianne and Leonard legendarily ends with both of them dying mere months apart in 2016, and a magnificent love letter he sent her while both were nearing the end, nearly 50 years after their affair ended. Marianne & Leonard also tracks their lives separate from each other—he became a successful recording artist, retreated to a Buddhist monastery for many years, and got ripped off by his longtime friend and business manager, forcing him to go back out on the road at the age of 70; she married someone else, watched her son enter a mental hospital for much of his life, and still carried a torch for Cohen.
Broomfield can be a bit much at times, but Marianne & Leonard is told with affection, admiration, and just enough jealousy to make it interesting but not enough to get in the way of the story that needs to be told cleanly and with the emphasis on the emotional origins of Cohen’s extraordinary music. On that level, the film is a stirring success, even if the history lesson leaves us with a few gaps.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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