Leonard Cohen was a lot of things in his life, but most of all he was a searcher. And like all true searchers, he always needed something to seek — something that he had, and loved, and let slip through his open fingers once it was familiar enough that he knew he could feel it on his skin forever. For Cohen, that something was a someone, and that someone was Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian single mother who the late musician and writer met on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s.
Along with Ihlen’s young son, Axle, they lived together in a daydream; she thought of them as a makeshift family, but he thought of her as his muse. And muses, like the inspiration they provide, are not made to be kept, so much as lost and found and lost again. The first and most famous song that Cohen ever wrote about Ihlen is called “So Long, Marianne,” and its lyrics have always sounded like the tortured poetry of a man who’s trying to escape the only joy he’s ever known (“I’m standing on a ledge/and your fine spider web/is fastening my ankle to a stone”).
And yet somehow, despite relegating Ihlen to the background, Nick Broomfield’s sporadically tender new documentary manages to invert that dynamic, and make it seem as though Cohen were the one who set the trap; that the muse is always at the mercy of the master song.
Broomfield, a straightforward filmmaker with an affinity for musical twosomes (previous features include “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie & Tupac”) and a rare knack for inserting himself into his work, would likely have been drawn to this bad romance even if he hadn’t been one of Ihlen’s lovers, but he was, and he really wants the world to know that. “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” doesn’t offer much in the way of levity, but it’s hard to stifle a laugh when Broomfield shares that information via his signature monotone voiceover.
In part, it’s funny because he’s talking about having sex with Leonard Cohen’s muse the way that a BBC newsanchor might talk about civil unrest in a distant country. And in part it’s funny because this personal reveal is dropped into a documentary that’s told with all the intimacy of a Ken Burns epic. Broomfield spills the tea right off the top (ostensibly in order to explain how he got ahold of some rare archival footage of Cohen and Ihlen on Hydra), but even then it already feels like a strange intrusion into history, and it only feels stranger as the rest of this rather basic account fails to recapture that intimacy.
Bookended by the story of Ihlen’s death — and the heartbreaking message that Cohen famously sent in the hours before she expired — “Words of Love” struggles to thread the needle between a conventional bio doc and a more specific portrait of two souls who found some kind of refuge in each other. A cursory overview of Cohen’s early years, while littered with archival footage and helpful talking head interviews from his childhood friends, is too remedial for fans and too threadbare for neophytes.
At one point, someone vaguely testifies that Cohen had to escape his native Montreal because of his “journey into the dark,” but even an intimate familiarity with the musician’s work isn’t enough to fill in the blanks that Broomfield leaves behind.
Far more compelling is the light that “Words of Love” shines on Cohen and Ihlen’s time on Hydra, how these two strangers fit together, and how they filled in the blanks they found in themselves. Ihlen, empowered by the liberated spirit of the time, had fled her abusive first husband. “She was beautiful,” someone tells Broomfield, “but she didn’t really enjoy being beautiful before she met Leonard.” Cohen was a struggling novelist then, and it wasn’t until he met Judy Collins — memorably interviewed here — that he was turned on to the idea of becoming a morose alternative to Bob Dylan.
It wasn’t long before he was touring the world, handsome and high, and scratching at his lifelong itch of “gaining womens’ favor.” One day, he was a scruffy-looking expat. The next, he was taking Ihlen to see Janis Joplin concerts, and not telling her that he was sleeping with Joplin as well.
“He could make women feel good about themselves,” the story goes, “but he couldn’t give himself to them because he couldn’t give himself away.” It’s a tale as old as time, but Broomfield is seduced by it as if he’s never heard it before; his film surrenders itself to long stretches of wonderful archival footage — some of which has appeared in previous music docs — in which Cohen gets stoned out of his mind and travels the world in a delirious state of vagabond delight. Yes, this is the kind of movie in which a musician’s tour manager appears on screen to reminisce about a magical time when random sex was so plentiful that even he was having some.
These hedonistic portions of the documentary can’t help but cohere into an unexpected argument for the virtues of monogamy, or at least underscore how free love often came at the expense of fucking someone over. “I threw myself into a blue movie,” Cohen laments, “but we know that blue movies are not romantic.” We do know that, which makes it all the more frustrating to watch Broomfield belabor the point — the relative lack of footage of Ihlen’s life forces the film to almost exclusively follow Cohen, but it’s clear that “Words of Love” is desperate to tell her story instead.
This is a film about the destructiveness of the muse dynamic, and the love that can survive beneath its tilted surface, but Broomfield tends to conflate loss and longing in a way that erases Ihlen’s point of view. The rare moments when “Words of Love” really digs into Cohen’s behavior tend to reinforce how little we know of the woman he left behind.
Broomfield stresses that Ihlen was suicidal at one point, and suggests that Axle’s lifelong mental struggles were galvanized by Cohen’s departure, but this documentary once again casts her in the role of the muse — as the spark that lights the fuse and then flickers away — and does more to codify that dynamic than to deconstruct it. Ihlen and her son are, in Cohen’s words, “the precious ones I overthrew for an education of the world,” but “Words of Love” fails to heed many of the lessons that he may have learned along the way.
Roadside Attractions will release “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” in theaters on July 5.