‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ Review: This Is Not a Love Story

Nick Broomfield's uneven documentary reveals folk icon Leonard Cohen as a master manipulator.

Marianne and Leonard
Roadside Attractions

Despite its title, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is not a love story. It is not a story of a cosmic romance, or of an artist-muse relationship. Whether director Nick Broomfield knows it or not, his latest documentary is a story of narcissism, exploitation, and manipulation. That’s not to say the story isn’t well-told, but it’s disconcerting all the same.

Marianne & Leonard chronicles the life of folk icon Leonard Cohen and his life-long relationship with Marianne Ihlen. Cohen cites Ihlen as the inspiration behind many of his songs. The two met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 and quickly took up with each other, along with Ihlen’s young son. They would remain in each other’s orbits — however unstable — for the rest of their lives.

The film is most compelling when Broomfield turns his gaze to Hydra. His recounting of the island’s golden decades is something of a love story itself, albeit one with a dour ending. Gorgeous archival footage from these years casts an effective spell of nostalgia, making us long for another time and place. Hydra is a paradise, a haven for artists and debauchery. The pleasures are simple and many. Henry Miller once wrote of the island, “Aesthetically it is perfect.” The waters are turquoise, the streets are cobblestone; brightly painted shutters and bougainvillea decorate the homes on the hillside. But bohemian life proved unsustainable for the islands’ inhabitants, including Cohen and Ihlen. “There was so much freedom there that sometimes people went too far with it,” one former resident recalls. One by one, Hydra’s expat artists fell victim to addiction, depression, and even suicide.

During the couple’s time on the island, Cohen was writing his novel, which would be poorly received upon publication. High on a cocktail of drugs including acid and speed, he would sit out in the sun and furiously clack away at his typewriter. Ihlen would bring him baskets of food and water while he did. This scene encapsulates the couple’s lifelong dynamic — that is, one of inequity.

Ihlen describes those years somewhat unsettlingly: “I was his Greek muse, who sat at his feet. He was the creative one.” My heart breaks imagining Ihlen sitting at Leonard’s feet, feeding him while he writes his shitty novel. Suddenly, the term “muse” becomes a way to strip a woman of her agency. Muses only exist in relation to their artists; they cannot exist independently of them. The artist-muse relationship is not one that requires mutual respect. Marianne & Leonard tells the story of a woman whose search for herself was obstructed and whose kindness was exploited. Over and over, talking heads remark on Ihlen’s compassionate and gentle disposition — a disposition of which Cohen took advantage.

During one interview, Broomfield remarks of Ihlen from behind the camera, “She was a great muse, wasn’t she?” It’s a disappointing and diminishing aside. From Broomfield’s account of Ihlen, I gather that she wanted desperately not to be just a muse. Surrounded always by artists, she wanted to be an artist herself, despite her lack of formal skills. “Life,” she said, was her medium. In Ihlen, we see a woman desperately attempting to lead her own life; those attempts, however, are consistently and carelessly overtaken and redirected by Cohen.

“Leonard saved her life,” a close friend says of Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship. Ihlen tells a different story. Of Cohen’s philandering, she admits she was pushed to the brink of suicide: “It hurt me so much; it destroyed me. I wanted to die.”

Thanks to Broomfield’s thorough and intimate biographical filmmaking, Cohen is revealed as a wholly unsympathetic character. He is more than a simple womanizer — his liaisons were many, his relationships overlapped, and he maintained multiple families at once. He desired and got the attention of women but was unwilling to reciprocate affection. Ironically, his lyrics often told of romance; in “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye,” Cohen sings of Ihlen, “You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me.” But upon closer inspection, Cohen’s truer nature is revealed. When he sings, “I loved you in the morning,” he means it literally; by the afternoon, he will have moved onto another woman.

“Poets do not make great husbands,” one particularly entertaining talking head remarks. As an addendum, she adds filmmakers, sculptors, and other artists to the mix. This theory, of men who are so devoted to their work that they cannot give themselves to a woman, is hardly original. We’ve seen it played out a million times: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, AMC’s Mad Men — even Citizen Kane, for God’s sake.

At this current cultural juncture, the story of a troubled but talented man who left a trail of mistreated women in his wake feels unneeded. Instead, I would have liked a deeper focus on Marianne — not just refracted through the filmmaker’s own personal relationship to the subject (Broomfield shares at the film’s start that he and Ihlen were “lovers”). We mostly see Ihlen through men’s eyes. More biographical insight into her life would have done her justice.

Broomfield takes great pains to depict Cohen as a stereotypical tortured artist. “He knew the dark; he knew struggle,” a childhood friend recounts. Another says, of Cohen’s frequent bouts of depression, “He lived in darkness.” By sketching Cohen as tormented and wounded, Broomfield seeks not to absolve the artist of his sins, but rather to explain them. With drugs and women, the film wants us to gather, Cohen sought to find something, to fill a void — this is well-trod and frankly unconvincing territory.

Formally, Marianne & Leonard sometimes presents as a sophisticated PowerPoint presentation — a series of images set to a Ken Burns effect. The editing is sometimes sloppy, and the result is uneven. But it’s salvaged by Broomfield’s inclusion of stunning archival and performance footage. Cohen’s musical genius is undeniable, which we are reminded of as we watch him perform. His rich baritone and beautiful poetry are difficult to shake, even knowing his personal transgressions.

Marianne & Leonard ends with Ihlen’s death. As she lay dying, Cohen sends her one last letter, which a loved one reads to her on her hospital bed: “Dearest Marianne,” it goes. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. […] I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty.” Cohen concludes the letter with “endless love and gratitude.” The film’s ending is intended to be moving; it is played for romance and catharsis. One talking head calls the scene “beautiful,” a circular moment: “That’s what words of love can do.”

If Ihlen appreciated Cohen’s parting message, then I’m happy for her. But I found the film’s conclusion to be a culmination of Cohen’s exploitation, the ways in which he used language to manipulate those around him — specifically women — and disguise it as love. Nothing in the way Cohen treated Ihlen during their lifetimes suggests “endless love and gratitude.” Instead, Cohen jerked Ihlen around for decades, uprooting her and her child without the intent of being present for them. He was serially unfaithful, publicly disrespectful, and inherently caddish. While Broomfield depicts Cohen’s failings honestly, he gets too caught up in his emotional finale to see it for what it really is.

Hearing one of Cohen’s female friends describe him as “a feminist” actually drew a hearty laugh from me. Cohen could not be further from a feminist, just as Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love could not be further from a love story. It’s a fine documentary; it’s just not the movie Broomfield likely thinks it is.