The one and only Leonard Cohen turns flat in Nick Broomfield’s latest, and it brings down his better half as a result.
“I was his Greek muse. He was the creative one,” Marianne Ihlen’s voice tells us. As a rare moment of her voice being heard, it’s as sad as it is refreshing. Here is a woman who’s been pushed into the shadows, and after her relationship with one of the twentieth century’s biggest stars ended, she became second fiddle to Leonard Cohen. In this documentary, however, she and her ex-lover become clichés, albeit with more details.
Yes, him too. The one and only Leonard Cohen turns flat in Nick Broomfield’s latest, and it brings down his better half as a result. Part of it is because the film doesn’t present her as equal halves. He’s Canadian; she’s Norwegian. He becomes a star; she becomes a muse. The doc deifies him while she fades into the background, and as the picture treks on, she falls victim to the documentary’s myopic structure and obsession with details. It’s like Broomfield based an idea on Ihlen’s words without grasping the irony that dripped from her every letter.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love has details for days, but few of them tessellate. It has lots to look at but not nearly enough to say. Hopping from the ‘60s to her death some half-century later, Broomfield gives audiences crumbs of context to wrangle in his story. Archive footage plays out while the director himself, once the pair’s peer, drones on about his experiences. It’s not quite an outsider looking in, though; it’s more of a third party jamming himself into someone else’s story, ogling at the innocuous.
What’s onscreen is almost always a deep find, and despite each piece’s lack of cohesion in a larger whole, the movie tosses exposition at the bottom. “Leonard split his time between Hydra and Montreal,” it tells us early on. Okay, good to know. And then: “Leonard was a writer before he was a singer,” It’d be nice if they established that before, but okay. But wait, there’s more? “After Beautiful Losers, Leonard had a breakdown.” Now it just feels slapdash. What’s odder, though, is how its sketchiest impulses play against the parts that actually work.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love has details for days, but few of them tessellate.
One would hope that an exploration of Ihlen and Cohen’s relationship would veer closer to the whole truth instead of the further deification of a pop star. It’s about halfway through that Broomfield abandons his initial thesis, forgetting about Ihlen in order to focus on Cohen’s touring life. Here it finds its rhythm, but it’s also when it becomes clear that Marianne & Leonard is only as good as its archive footage. Its deeper cuts bring a sense of life. Some voiceovers can be invasive, but they can also strike a keen balance between sight and sound.
When Broomfield puts these next to the quieter moments—a single tear, a nervous performance—emotions come to pass. Not only do they only revolve around Cohen, but they’re orchestrated in such an openly subjective love of the man that it never works up the nerve to criticize him. It’s a one-sided biography. To Broomfield, Cohen is a god. An unintentionally chauvinistic, irresponsible, and highly talented god who was a product of his time, sure, but a god all the same.
So what does that make Ihlen? One half of the relationship, maybe? Not here. Here she’s an object, a fluke, a piece to use for a bit and replace after a few years. She’s a limb of free love culture that just so happened to cross paths with a singer-songwriter. Broomfield may care about her, but his film just cares about the manic pixie dream girl with flowers in her hair.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is currently singing Hallelujah in limited release.