In Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard,” Cohen’s Muse Finally Gets Her Day in the Sun

The documentarian speaks about his deep-dive into the famous couple's fraught romantic history.

In 2016, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen made joint headlines when the former sent a letter to the latter on her deathbed; after spending many of their formative years embroiled in an on-again, off-again courtship, the musician was writing his ex-lover to say goodbye:

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart. I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine … Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

Nick Broomfield seemed tired when we spoke at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A few hours earlier, he was wiping away what looked to be tears following the premiere of his documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. He wasn’t the only one: sniffles clipped the air all over the MARC Theater in Park City at the movie’s conclusion. Broomfield admitted, pre-screening, that he was nervous—this was “the first love story” he’s ever told.

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen on Hydra, courtesy of Aviva Layton

Marianne & Leonard contains footage shot by Ihlen’s friend Jan Christian Mollestad of Marianne hearing Cohen’s letter read aloud to her in bed; eyes foggy, one hand extended upward, her fingers open and close softly while she listens. When it’s over, she calls his words “beautiful.” Two days later she was dead, and Cohen followed her four months after that.

It just so happens that British documentarian Broomfield both personally knew and loved these people. He met Marianne, the blonde leading lady of Cohen songs “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” in 1968; she was Broomfield’s lover too, for a time, and they remained friends for years afterward. Marianne was the one who first suggested Nick make documentaries, advice he took to heart.

Broomfield’s film challenges the ideal of a subservient and willing muse, approaching the cliché with a healthy dose of realism—yet it also proves how necessary this particular muse was. Marianne was not quite an artist herself, at least not in the traditional sense: her artistry lay in helping others figure out their talents, in her intellectual generosity. When she met Leonard on the sun-drenched, dirt-cheap Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, their open (but devoted) romance was mutually beneficial: He played father to her son Axel, whom she’d had with a different, angrier man, and made her feel beautiful for the first time in her life. “He could make women feel good about themselves—that was how he loved them. But he couldn’t give himself to them,” someone in the doc says of Cohen..

Broomfield’s film challenges the ideal of a subservient and willing muse, approaching the cliché with a healthy dose of realism—yet it also proves how necessary this particular muse was. 

Leonard would not have been Leonard without Hydra. On the island, he sat for hours baking in the sun, writing poetry and a doomed book (Beautiful Losers), doing acid and speed and living with Marianne sans electricity. He eventually began splitting his time between Hydra and the wintery Montréal, thinking he needed to strike some sort of balance. According to those who lived on Hydra during this golden period, adapting to the “real world” was nearly impossible; the island-departed had high instances of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. Leonard was one of the few success stories, perhaps because he was never really happy anywhere, thus immune to the island’s charms. He struggled with fierce depression, and once said he could never enjoy his success because “he didn’t have what it took.”

By use of copious archival footage, Broomfield conveys the relative purity of the Leonard-Marianne bond. She loved him before he found his calling, you see, before he was even a songwriter. (It’s funny to hear stories of his reluctance to sing and his stage fright, which was so bad he began sobbing and walked offstage in the middle of his first-ever performance. Marianne encouraged him.) But when she left Hydra and followed Cohen to Canada, they were unhappy together. He got more famous, and she had to compete with women like Janis Joplin, whose brief affair with Cohen is memorialized in the song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” Marianne was so sad she nearly killed herself. Cohen never promised monogamy—love was “free” back then—but it still hurt to share him.

Post-breakup, Leonard continued to send Marianne love notes and money, helping to support Axel (who was later institutionalized). The documentary provides a rather valorous vision of Leonard as someone who was eternally compelled to escape, despite the toll it took on his relationships—he couldn’t help it. But who knows; maybe he could’ve.

After eight years with Marianne, Leonard met Suzanne, and although there was some overlap between the women, he ultimately left the former for the latter. (Note: she wasn’t the subject of Leonard’s “Suzanne”—that was about another Suzanne entirely, one who was never his lover.) The Suzanne who was his lover was fourteen years his junior and became the mother of his children; Marianne, by contrast, had at least one abortion for Leonard’s sake. In the film, Suzanne is described by a friend of Leonard’s as manipulative, luring the singer like a spider does a fly. It took someone “ruthless,” the source explains, to make Leonard settle down. Not that it lasted.

Much of the doc is threaded with subtle worship of Leonard’s gentle persona; he lives for years in a monastery with a shaven head, plays shows in mental hospitals, and speaks quietly to women. His empathy seems unending, despite his inability to commit. He was never the bad boy rockstar type girls sometimes fall for; he is melancholy, inscrutable, slow. That’s another type girls love, I suppose, but it’s a type they don’t have to feel as guilty about loving.

Leonard was never the bad boy rockstar type girls sometimes fall for; he is melancholy, inscrutable, slow.

When Cohen’s close friend and longtime manager Kelley Lynch embezzled $5 million from him, he remained calm, describing Lynch in an interview as someone he was “still rather fond of.” He had to begin touring again, now in his 70s, to make back the lost money—but this led to what everyone called a late-career “comeback.” (That’s when I saw him live in concert, at the Brooklyn Barclays Center in 2012. He was 78 years old, and sang for three hours straight. The only man who’s ever looked good in a fedora.)

Marianne, who was Norwegian, married a man named Jan Stang and moved back to Oslo. When Leonard toured there in those later years, he got her front-row seats. There is brief footage of Marianne in the audience, singing along to Leonard’s songs and smiling.

Cohen’s final letter to his earliest muse touched fans, I think, because such an earnest display of gratitude despite decades of separation is rare. But most hurts heal in time, leaving only the good stuff. Leonard’s note helped to ease her passing. “That’s what words of love can do,” says her friend Jan Mollestad, who filmed Marianne’s reaction and later told Broomfield’s camera that Leonard’s words were the ones she most needed to hear.

I spoke to Broomfield about his movie, muses, and reaching out to people you’ve misplaced along the way.

You said in the post-screening Q&A that you learned more making this film than any of the others you’ve directed. What did you mean by that?

It’s on a very personal level. Obviously when you do something like Tales of the Grim Sleeper, you learn about the city, the people you haven’t met and might have preconceptions about. On something like this, though, it’s very much an internal thing, where you think about the people in your life who’ve had a big influence on you. Their passing away…you always say, “Oh, I wish I had spent a bit more time with them, or asked them this or that.” The shortness of all our experiences…you kind of want to make the most of what you have. And meeting incredible people—Leonard and Marianne were surrounded by so many.

I suppose what I’m saying is, we tend to lead a very insular life and deal with day-to-day problems we have, and then making a film like this, you step out of that. I met with people I was very connected to at a certain time in my life, but we’d both gone our respective ways. Now I was looking at what they’d done with themselves.

At one point you revisit Hydra, the Greek island where Cohen and Marianne spent so much of their time. It was a paradise in the ’60s, but you describe it now as a “playground for the rich.” Is there any place that still exists as a haven for artists like that, where people can live cheaply—or is this a dying notion?

I’m sure there are places that are just now being discovered. Hydra was half-abandoned in the ’50s and ’60s, there were all these ruins. It had once been a wealthy island, and then there was terrible disease there and everyone died. So there were all these empty buildings, and artists moved into them—you could live there for nothing. And next the artists become known by the super-rich, people like Jackie Kennedy and Onassis himself and Princess Margaret—who were interested in the bohemian side of it. So they go, and then the middle classes follow, and then all the prices suddenly go up. Now you can’t get a house for under half a million—it’s like LA prices. Artists can’t afford to live there anymore.

Aviva Johnson [wife of Irving Layton, poet and close friend of Cohen’s] is probably your funniest and most vivid talking head. The biggest laugh the film got was when she said, very definitively, “No artist can make a good husband.” Do you agree?

“I guess the human condition is one of striving and failing, isn’t it? His strength as an artist is that he was very open about his failings.”

I can only look at myself, but I think it’s probably very true. If you’re obsessed with what you’re working on, you’re not particularly available for other things.

Though you do show how much Leonard tried to strike a balance between his work and his personal commitments.

I guess the human condition is one of striving and failing, isn’t it? His strength as an artist is that he was very open about his failings. That’s something people identified with and related to.

Marianne was a bit of a muse for you, too. She introduced you to D.A. Pennebaker and suggested you make documentaries when you were young. There’s this mythology surrounding the female muse who is used and tossed out by a male artist. Did your thoughts about “the muse” evolve in telling this story?

I obviously had an enormous respect for Marianne—she had such a big influence on my life. But the muse is like an eighteenth-century concept. Everything today seems attached to some monetary value…she was thinking in a whole different way. I guess there are ways in which people monetize that kind of talent, maybe by being a manager or a cutthroat agent or something. But there are some people, like Marianne, who have a talent and a generosity to be receptive to other people’s possibilities, and to really encourage them. When she threw the I Ching, she always wanted to get the Receptive. She was entranced by what other people were doing; their music, their painting. She would become completely involved in their work, probably to her own detriment.

Did Marianne feel the need to make her own work?

I think she sort of did. There’s a bit in the film where she says, “everyone else was a painter or a writer, and I had nothing…and I would say, life is my art.” That’s true, but when you’re sitting around in a group, you can’t say “I’m a muse.”

What was the process of getting access to all that archival footage like?

That was the most difficult part of the film, getting that archive—the material of Pennebaker’s, of Marianne on the island in the ’60s. Penny is now a dear friend, so I kept calling up asking for the footage. No one knew where it was, Penny couldn’t even really remember having shot it. You have to be very patient and persistent. Finally Frazer, who runs Pennebaker’s office, eventually went down into the massive vault and started rooting around. Pennebaker was one of these filmmakers who shot amazing footage of so many people—he used his 16mm camera like a very expensive iPhone. Frazer found the stuff, all that footage which had never been viewed. There was also a Norwegian filmmaker who had Super 8 footage that he’d never processed, of Axel as a young boy on Hydra. A lot of the work on this film, in a way, was finding the footage, persuading the people. The footage of Marianne is the only footage I’ve ever seen of her in that time.

The film’s subtitle is “Words of Love.” But Leonard and Marianne’s love was kind of unrequited, in the sense that it was on-and-off and never fully realized. How did delving more deeply into their romance alter your own perspective on relationships?

“A lot of the work on this film, in a way, was finding the footage, persuading the people. The footage of Marianne is the only footage I’ve ever seen of her in that time.”

I reached out a lot more to old friends. One of the things I remember is, I worked with this amazing architect called Adra. She was brilliant, we built a lot of things together, but then we lost touch. And I kept thinking about her, so I wrote and told her how much I valued what she did. It meant a lot to her, and she wrote back to me. Then the next week she died, completely unexpectedly. Sometimes you just don’t let people know enough.

The film—or Aviva, in particular—kind of paints Suzanne as the woman who ultimately entrapped Leonard, and Marianne as the woman he should’ve been with, who was better for him. Is that also your understanding? You knew Marianne, so I realize you might be biased.

Well, I knew Suzanne too. I guess it’s not just Aviva, only. I knew Suzanne but I didn’t know…she was…I didn’t want to make a film that was particularly condemning of anybody. There were a lot of other things that could be said about Suzanne that were not in the film for that reason. I guess I thought what Aviva said—although it was blunt—was, if anything, an understatement. It’s something Leonard himself talked about quite a lot. I was slightly surprised, because I’d kind of forgotten a little bit about Suzanne, but I decided not to make her a big part of the film.

In the same way Marianne was a muse, she was also a very retiring figure. She would never ask for anything. It was the same thing as her beauty—she never really wore any makeup. And she wasn’t ever going to get into a competition.

Did you learn anything about Leonard that surprised you?

I’m not sure how much it comes across in the film, but he was so disciplined. He would look for a word, sometimes for a couple of years, to make a poem perfect. It was that obsession and dedication that made him great, but it also meant he wasn’t always available. His discipline also went to treating people—all people—with an incredible amount of respect. He didn’t lose his cool or have outbursts. I’m sure he probably had it in him, but in his monk-like way, he decided that was not how he was going to react.

There’s this incredible footage that’s not in the film, but he was on tour and the sound equipment had had terrible feedback for the last ten concerts, and people were asking for their money back. It was that bad. And instead of savaging the sound crew, which nearly anyone would do, he was very restrained. You could see he was really upset, but the way he conducted himself…it was pretty elegant. FL

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