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Marianne and Leonard doc tells story of Cohen and his famous muse


Hello, Marianne.

Just when we thought we had learned everything there was to know about Leonard Cohen’s decades-spanning connection to his famous muse, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield arrives with profound new insights, courtesy of a rather unique insider status.

His documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, tells of the ups and downs of the love affair and life-long link between Cohen and Marianne Ihlen.

Your average Cohen fan may know the basic talking points of the pair’s relationship, from their meeting on the Greek island of Hydra to the farewell letter Cohen sent the namesake of one of his most famous songs as she lay on her deathbed in 2016 (which was shared around the world via social media).

But there’s much more to their story, and Broomfield gets the scoop by getting personal. He is not simply an enquiring documentary filmmaker with a Cohen fixation. As it turns out, his way into the story is not through Cohen at all.

“I went to Hydra when I was 20, and had the good fortune to meet Marianne when I was on the island,” Broomfield told the Gazette, in a recent interview. “I was very influenced by her interest in many, many things, including encouraging me to make my first film.”

As we learn in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Broomfield and Ihlen had an affair of their own, until another of her boyfriends came into the picture — hey, it was the ’60s, and Cohen wasn’t the only one engaging in free love. But beneath Ihlen’s free spirit, he sensed something darker.

“She was going through a very difficult time in her life,” Broomfield said. “Leonard’s first album had come out in ’67, the year before I went to Hydra. She was alone on Hydra, and probably quite lonely, wondering what to do. She had Axel, her son, at that time, and I think she was very determined to try to resuscitate her relationship with Leonard.

“We spent quite a lot of time with each other in autumn up to Christmas that year. It was a very intense time, especially for a 20-year-old who had led a pretty sheltered life. I was at university at the time, studying politics and law. It was an awakening to a different world.”

The film recounts Cohen and Ihlen’s first meeting, while he was still a struggling poet and writer, and details their evolving entanglement (with help from some wonderful old footage Broomfield tracked down of Ihlen on Hydra at the time).

“She was there and supported him through the very difficult years, when he was a struggling writer and hadn’t found his position as a writer-poet-musician,” Broomfield said. “Their relationship existed more before he was famous than after.”

He gets people close to Cohen to recount his transition into music, while exploring the strain the singer’s burgeoning career put on his bond with Ihlen. They continued to meet up for ever-shortening spells together — whether on tour, on Hydra or when Cohen summoned Ihlen and Axel to come live with him in Montreal.

None of those options were enough to salvage their relationship. Broomfield doesn’t hold back as he delves into Cohen’s womanizing ways, and we get stories (and images) of the drug use and rock’n’roll lifestyle that went with it.

Meanwhile, Ihlen wandered, remaining on Hydra for years with occasional trips abroad to visit friends, including Broomfield in England — where she would make friends with the underprivileged kids in his neighbourhood. She finally returned home to Norway and settled down, remarrying and taking a job as a secretary.

“I saw her go through different phases,” Broomfield said. “She was very concerned about her son Axel. … We talked about working together at various stages, but that never happened. She only saw a couple of my films. I remember her seeing the film I did about Thatcher (Tracking Down Maggie, 1994). I always wondered what on earth she thought of that.”

Broomfield met Cohen on a few occasions, in England, where the subject of conversation inevitably turned to Ihlen and the fate of her son, who ended up in a psychiatric institution.

“I met him in a more formal capacity at various awards dinners, when he was going out with Rebecca De Mornay (in the late ’80s and early ’90s),” Broomfield said. “He was very concerned about Axel. I could tell he was very disturbed by what happened.”

Ultimately, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is indeed the story of a great love, and of the ups and downs and impediments of maintaining that love, especially when one of the lovers is a world-famous singer-songwriter with a lot of other loves.

For Broomfield, it’s also the story of the ’60s, and the good and bad that went with all that freedom.

“I think the film is a portrait of that time and of their love, in all its complications and unconventionality,” he said. “It was born out of that feeling of loss when they both died, having been such a big part of my formative years.

“It’s a film about an enduring love, that hopefully resonates with people because they think about their own loves and their own lives. Love is a complicated, deep, passionate emotion that scales great happiness, sadness and loss. It’s not always that kind of box-of-chocolate love that we grow up with the impression it’s going to be. And maybe that makes it even deeper.”

tdunlevy@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/TChaDunlevy

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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