In the early 60s, a young struggling fiction writer named Leonard Cohen became struck by the lavish beauty of the Greek isle of Hydra, a welcome respite from the chilling winds of Quebec. There, he became involved with the woman who would change his life forever, the enchanting Norwegian artist Marianne Ihlen. As Cohen would go on to become a prominent figure in the world of folk music, his relationship with Ihlen would serve as the basis of some of his most beloved tunes, such as “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” With Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, acclaimed English documentarian Nick Bloomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me, Tales of the Grim Sleeper) aims to sift through their tortured love story in order to examine the highs and lows of the free love era.
Broomfield and Leonard Cohen apparently share little more than an affection for the same alluring woman, which keeps Words of Love from ever dipping into anything remotely close to hagiography. In fact, the film often depicts Cohen as a manipulative womanizer with almost no regard to something that didn’t directly add to his own pleasure. When he discovers himself as a songwriter, he abandons the life he was building in paradise, and the film doesn’t let him off the hook for giving in to his desires at the expense of those around him. Broomfield’s longtime friendship with Marianne also brings a depth to her representation beyond simply assuming the role of someone else’s artistic muse. Despite their tumultuous relationship, Cohen and Ihlen’s strained connection never quite died out, leading to Leonard’s touching eulogy for his ailing friend just months before his own death: “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.”
With voiceover testimonials read out over archival footage, Words of Love paints a complex portrait of its setting. Broomfield spends the majority of his film challenging the spirited notions of casual sex and rampant drug use that proved to be so infectious in the 1960s. As one of the first-hand accounts opines, “There was so much freedom that people went too far with it.” The film views the flagrantly hedonistic environment of the time period as ultimately damaging, condemning Cohen for using his newfound celebrity to seduce countless young fans while Marianne was left to tend to the responsibilities of parenthood.
Broomfield’s flowing affection for Marianne Ihlen is present throughout the documentary, even making sure he gives her top billing over Cohen in the film’s title. He was a member of this community, and as such, he never claims to have an objective perspective as he dives into a passion much more personal than when he sought to pin down Tupac or Kurt Cobain or Whitney Houston in previous docs. Broomfield is capturing the emotional journey of the story, rather than hammering out the historical chain of events. As a result, Words of Love always feels more like an abstract art piece than a true biography. In doing so, the film becomes a loving testament to the sacred bond between two passing ships, even as their turbulent circumstances kept them apart.