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DVD Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

October 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen died within three months of each other in 2016. The two never got married or had children together, but they shared a deep bond, with her directly inspiring at least two of Cohen’s classic songs (“So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire”).

Ihlen, a young mother from Norway, became the Montreal singer-songwriter’s muse when the two first met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, where there was a thriving community of writers and other artists. Cohen was a poet, struggling novelist and avid drug user at the time, having yet to start his celebrated musical career, and Ihlen was raising the son she shared with Norwegian author Axel Jensen, when they started their love affair.

As Cohen rose to prominence as a performer, and had many other affairs, he would spend less and less time in Hydra. At first he would split his time evenly between there and Montreal, living six months out of a year in each place, before spending almost no time on the island. Ihlen would also go on to have another, more stable relationship, beginning to view Cohen as a figure from her past who remained just out of reach, but the two kept connecting over the years until their deaths a few months apart.

The over fifty year friendship and romantic entanglement between Ihlen and Cohen is documented in director Nick Broomfield’s often lovely documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Broomfield was a contemporary of theirs who also met Marianne in Hydra in the 1960s, becoming a longtime friend to her, and his personal connection to the story is felt throughout the film. Through an abundance of archival footage, and new interviews with others who were in their circles, what emerges is a bittersweet portrait of both the free-loving 1960s and the meteoric rise of an artist as one of the figures who inspired him faded into the background of his life but continued to influence his work.

As others have pointed out, Leonard Cohen is more the focus here than Marianne Ihlen, which perhaps could be seen as a statement on how an artist’s “muse,” despite being an integral part of their mythos as Ihlen was to Cohen’s, is often seen through the lens of the work they inspired rather than on their own terms. In its last act, the film provides an overview of Cohen’s late career financial troubles following the several years that he spent at a monastery in the 1990s, leading to him going back on tour for a series of triumphant concerts in the last few years of his life. He gave Ihlen a front row seat at one of his shows, and the footage of her singing along is one of the most touching moments in the film.

Is this a love story? I’m not so sure, as the relationship at the centre of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is much more complex than that, with one figure often overshadowing the other, both in this film and in real life. What the film ultimately becomes is a moving look at how artists remain elusive figures in relationships, present but often just out of reach in terms of truly giving themselves over to another person. It’s ultimately a story that is as poignant and twinged with sadness as one of Cohen’s songs.

The DVD includes no bonus features, but the package does come with a digital copy of the film.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 102 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

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