Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

 

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A personal work that finds the veteran documentarist Nick Broomfield on top form.

 
Marianne & Leonard Words of Love
 

The title of Nick Broomfield's latest documentary tells us a lot about the film. The Leonard to which it refers is the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, a fact which in itself might have suggested that this would be a portrait of a performer to place beside Broomfield's Whitney Houston biopic, 2017's Whitney: Can I Be Me. However, it is not by chance that the title puts first the name of the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen who was Cohen's muse. She can validly be regarded as the love of his life even though they were only a pair in the 1960s. By naming both of them in the title, Broomfield alerts us to the fact that in this context Cohen's achievements on stage are a secondary element. Indeed his film is essentially a double portrait but one with their love, changing but enduring, at its centre. When Marianne was dying in 2016, the words addressed by Leonard to her became celebrated and, in a film that makes much use of personal footage, the accompanying images add touchingly to this emotional climax.

 

Broomfield's film displays his skills at full force. He makes admirable use of home movies and photos and of location shooting on the Greek island of Hydra where the couple lived in the 1960s. It was then that Cohen's offbeat writing efforts would be abandoned in favour of composing music and soon, despite some initial reluctance, he started to sing his own songs. As the film develops there is an increasing use of talking heads, but valuably so since the interviewees offer real insights. That this is no standard biopic is explained by the fact that Broomfield met Marianne on Hydra in 1968, became intimate with her (she encouraged the young man to adopt a career as a filmmaker) and remained a friend for life. But, to his credit, Broomfield does not allow his feelings for her to make this a one-sided picture (for example, it becomes clear that she was not always a good mother to the child of her early first marriage).

 

It is striking too that Broomfield leaves it to the viewers to make their own assessments. For some, the atmospheric evocation of life in the sun in the 1960s (that being a time when the spirit of the age encouraged drug-taking, alcohol binging and sexual freedom) will come across as a dream of a paradise. But this film also reveals unhesitatingly how many lives were ruined by these indulgences. For that matter, while the bond that linked Marianne and Leonard to the end is unquestionably celebrated, the pain caused to Marianne by his need to go it alone and by his philandering is never hidden. There are occasions (such as the late footage about the six years spent by Cohen living in a monastery) when what is shown feels tangential to the film's emphasis on these two interwoven lives. But what matters is that both portraits have the kind of depth rare in documentary films: it was achieved brilliantly in 2018's McQueen, that exceptional study of the fashion designer made by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, and Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love runs it close. For Broomfield, this was a labour of love in itself, but always a clear-eyed one.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Judy Collins, Helle Goldman, Richard Vick and archive footage of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen.

 

Dir Nick Broomfield, Pro Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin, Shani Hinton and Kyle Gibbon, Ph Barney Broomfield, Ed Marc Hoeferlin, Music Nick Laird-Clowes.

 

BBC/Kew Media Group-Dogwoof.
102 mins. UK/Canada. 2019. Rel: 26 July 2019 Cert. 12A.