If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s, you may recall Stephen Frears’ film Prick Up Your Ears, based on John Lahr’s biography of the British playwright Joe Orton. If you’re a bit older, you may remember not only Orton’s plays, but also the way he died—murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who committed suicide shortly thereafter. In Frears’ film, while musing about this unexpected turn of events, Orton’s agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave) likens Halliwell’s role to that of the first wife, who nurtures a talented man then gets left behind when that talent starts to pay off. Critic John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) points out that “First wives don’t usually beat their husbands’ heads in” and Ramsay replies “No. Though why I can’t think.”
That’s a good exchange to keep in mind when viewing Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Leonard, of course, is Leonard Cohen, while Marianne is Marianne Ihlen, the woman who is often described as his muse. They lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, she doing the cooking and cleaning and inspiring and encouraging while he was taking lots of drugs and trying to make it as a writer. Then Cohen found his vocation as a singer-songwriter, and success with all its trappings quickly followed, including lots of touring engagements and endless numbers of young women eager to give him head on an unmade bed or the equivalent.
Their relationship sputtered on for a few years before dying completely, and to her credit (and unlike Kenneth Halliwell), Marianne did not beat her ex-partner’s skull in with a hammer and kill herself with sleeping pills. Instead, she went back to her native country of Norway, where she got an ordinary job and lived an ordinary life, while he became world-famous. Most people, if they are at all aware of Marianne Ihlen today, probably think of her as the subject of one of Cohen’s best-known songs, “So long, Marianne.”
Marianne & Leonard is an odd film because it seems to promise one type of story, while in fact is telling another. The story hinted at by the title is that of an undying romance, and the fact that Marianne is mentioned first might make you think that her story would receive as much consideration as Cohen’s. You’d be wrong on both counts—in fact, this is primarily a film about Leonard Cohen, and Marianne disappears for large parts of it. When she is discussed, it’s mainly in terms of the men she was attached to, including her first husband, the Norwegian writer Axel Jensen (who is described as angry and violent). Director Broomfield also makes sure that we know that he slept with her, which is a tasteless and unnecessary addition to her story.
Marianne & Leonard is richly illustrated with photos, audio clips, and most of all some film clips shot by D.A. Pennabaker on Hydra in the early 1960s, when Marianne & Leonard were an item. She’s a strikingly beautiful woman, who radiates warmth and charm, and it’s easy to see why men were so taken with her. It’s more baffling to listen to Marianne put herself down—according to her, she wasn’t beautiful and didn’t have any talents. Unfortunately, Broomfield isn’t interested in exploring why her opinion of herself was so out of whack with what anyone else can plainly see, and in truth this lack of self-confidence may explain why she was willing to live her life through others.
Fans of Leonard Cohen will want to see Marianne & Leonard because of its rich array of archival materials. Even if Cohen is not your man, however, it’s worth seeing for its sometimes rather frank discussions of life on Hydra. Along with the easy living and perpetual sunshine, there were neglected children, rampant drug use (with said drugs sometimes supplied to underage children), and abortions so as to not inconvenience men with children they did not want. Marianne’s son Axel, seen as a charming, tow-headed child, later spent time in a mental institution. In the end, Marianne & Leonard is most interesting when it reveals the less glorious aspects of living on the edges of someone else’s life. | Sarah Boslaugh