Prove your humanity

A black and white film photograph of an ethereal woman caressing a statue that leans against a mouldy brick wall. Her hair, despite the picture being black and white, is clearly so sun-bleached that it seems to glow. The woman looks to be at peace, a candid photograph of an ordinary day. This is Marianne.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, directed by Nick Broomfield, is an elegy of love put to screen. It details the life of Leonard Cohen and the only woman that he truly fell in love with, Marianne Ihlen. Following their life from the moment they met on Hydra, Words of Love paints a tragic love story of a couple who grew and fell apart, but never truly.

The film used a mixture of video and stills that spanned across a number of years from the time that was spent on Hydra to the day that Ihlen died. Most of the film was a collage of stills with a slow zoom while audio from interviews played over the top. Many of the interviews were conducted in front of a simple black backdrop, allowing the viewer to focus entirely on the content of their speech and the accompaniment of the interviewee’s body language. Some were friends of Ihlen, the wives of Cohen’s friends, along with the people who witnessed Cohen’s rise to fame.

Despite not knowing too much about Leonard Cohen before the film, the experience was not hindered. It wasn’t so much about him and his life but more about how his career affected a single relationship. It pinpointed the particular moments that were pivotal in the creation of his connection with Ihlen and all that it entailed. I found the growth of his career very interesting, how he began as a writer and poet and then fell into music, yet when he became a musician, he was catapulted into the spotlight. It was a tender moment in the film as Judy Collins recounts his first performance in front of a live audience in 1967 and how Cohen ran off stage sobbing because he had such a bad case of stage fright. It just goes to show that even the famous get frightened too.

Broomfield incorporated a lot of his own footage from when he visited the island and was intimate with Ihlen. Film has a certain nostalgic quality about it and for this documentary, in particular, it was the perfect medium to use. There was a particular shot of Ihlen as she laughs on a boat with the glittering Greek sea in the background that I really enjoyed. Her luminescent hair was whipping around her face in the wind and the camera quickly zoomed in on her face to capture her grinning. It seemed to me as the epitomizing shot that encapsulated her character completely, the care-free Norwegian girl living the 60’s dream on an island of artists.

Hydra, the location in focus for most of the film, was tinged in a mystical light from the way that it was described by those who’d visited it. Quite a few of the interviewee’s described it as a “refuge for artists” and how easy it was to fall head over heels for the lifestyle that came along with the island. Spending sun-soaked days lounging on rocks and diving off boats into turquoise waters was the itinerary for most who stayed there. Cohen rejected the monotony of Montreal and found himself in Hydra to nurse his creativity and write in the idyllic peace of the island. Ihlen found herself there after following her husband, Axel Jensen, who was also a writer. Ihlen and Jensen eventually split due to him being a violent man, leaving her to become Cohen’s “Greek muse”, as many recalled. From there, their relationship blossomed as he wrote his fever dream of a novel, Beautiful Losers, while tripping almost daily on acid. It was the 60’s, after all. To Cohen, the island was too good to be real, so he divided his time between Hydra and Montreal, returning to the latter to get back in touch with the real world. This led to the demise of Ihlen and Cohen’s relationship.

In an interview with Cohen at the Mt Baldy Zen Centre, Southern California, during his longest visit there from 1994-1999, he explains his thoughts on love and the equal power between the two people in a relationship. He goes on about opposites, likening heterosexual relationships to the sun and the moon, valleys and peaks; both equal forces of power in their own right. This moment in the film stuck with me as the poet in Cohen really emerged, enhanced with an undercurrent of the spirituality that he nurtured at the monastery. This could be likened to the relationship that he had with Ihlen in the sense that they too were opposites; she represented the peaceful life on Hydra and he the bustling life of the rich and famous. In the end, he couldn’t have both.

As I got into my car after the film, I took a moment to just sit there and think about the wild love story that I had just experienced. Leonard and Marianne’s relationship was the definition of a whirlwind romance, of two souls intrinsically tied together in this life and the next. It gives one the hope that someday, somewhere, they too might stumble into another and share just a sliver of what Marianne and Leonard had.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is in cinemas December 12th