movie review

Marianne & Leonard Unravels the Story Behind the Most Loving Breakup Song Ever Written

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Among artsy expats on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, the Norwegian single mother Marianne Ihlen became the lover and (if you believe in such things) the muse of poet, novelist, and future musician Leonard Cohen — who, a decade later, would say “so long” in what some of us regard as the most loving breakup song ever written.

That song, “So Long, Marianne,” is the tender heart of Nick Broomfield’s documentary/memoir Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, which tells the stories of both Marianne and Leonard, together and apart — though much of what Leonard says (in interviews and in footage that spans half a century) is about Leonard and much of what Marianne says is about Leonard, too. Broomfield was a close friend (and sometime lover) of Ihlen, but it’s Cohen’s “so long” that gives the film its aching central motif. This is a movie about loss — inexplicable loss.

Footage of Leonard and Marianne from the early ’60s reveals two of the most beautiful people who ever walked the Earth, though neither considered themselves as such. “I always thought my face was too round,” says Marianne, in voice-over. “And Leonard never thought he was beautiful.” (True, Cohen’s voice would multiply his sexual magnetism by a factor of a million, but he was still wonderful to look at.) Is there such a thing as retroactive FOMO? Because at first glance who wouldn’t want to go back in time and live among fabulous artistic people on a fabulous, rugged island in an era of fabulous free love and fabulous drugs? “There was writing and lovemaking,” says Marianne, as the camera surveys the steep hills and radiant white villas. “It was absolutely fabulous.”

Cohen gobbled a lot of speed and dropped a lot of acid and — with Marianne watching over him — mined his insanity to write the brilliant, borderline unreadable novel, Beautiful Losers, which critics panned and no one bought. At which point he started writing songs, and the rest is history — some of it irresistibly juicy, like Judy Collins’s account of pulling Cohen (who maintained he couldn’t sing) onto the stage after she had a hit with “Suzanne.” His hesitant, tremulous debut sounds like a scene out of A Star Is Born.

In his oft-despairing, oft-depressive way, Cohen thrived on Hydra, but for others there was trouble in paradise. Many kids raised in an atmosphere of chaos and heavy drug use didn’t adjust to adulthood so well, says Helle Goldman, who would write a book about her childhood among bohemians on Hydra and is now (how cool is this?) the editor of a science journal living in Norway above the Arctic Circle. (You can’t get much farther from a sun-kissed Greek island than that.) Most marriages failed. As Aviva Layton, the wife of the Canadian poet and Cohen buddy Irving Layton, explains, acidly, “Poets do not make great husbands. You can’t own them.” (Layton had left his second wife for Aviva and then left Aviva for his fourth wife.) She says Cohen was particularly elusive: “He could love women from a distance, make them feel good, but he wouldn’t give himself to them. He couldn’t give himself away.”

That’s the big question of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love: why Leonard couldn’t give himself to Marianne — or his next well-known lover, Suzanne, or any of the approximately 5,379 women with whom he was intimate when his star rose. He spent much of his life trying to figure that out, too. “A large part of my life was escaping,” Cohen says in an interview with D.A. Pennebaker, portions of which Broomfield uses in voice-over. “I was always leaving, always trying to get away.” He wanted sex all the time, with as many women as possible: “I was possessed, obsessive about it, the blue movie that I threw myself into … ” He adds, “Blue movies are not romantic,” which sounds like a great line from a song that Cohen should have written.

On occasion, Broomfield interjects himself to talk about his relationship with Marianne, who urged him to make his first documentary on a Cardiff, Wales, slum clearance. What Broomfield doesn’t mention is how well he knew Cohen or what Cohen made of Broomfield and his later, more scabrous documentaries. It’s not a small point, given that Broomfield’s beloved Marianne never quite got over Leonard (although she would marry and become a stepmom and have a middle-class Norwegian life) and that her son, Axel, was one of those Hydra casualties. Tales told by bandmates like Ron Cornelius portray Cohen’s post-Marianne years as acid travesties. (Cohen says he was known as “Captain Mandrax” for his love of the quaalude-related hypnotic sedative.) Stories told by the music producer John Lissauer (whom Cohen abandoned to make a disastrous album with Phil Spector) suggest that Cohen was not the most loyal of collaborators. Does Broomfield mean us to see Cohen as a great artist and an excruciatingly limited man? It’s strange that “to learn things about love” (Cohen’s words) the singer-songwriter would shave his head on the aptly named Mt. Baldy and take up with a spiritual adviser (seen grunting) called Roshi. Is it bourgeois to suggest that Cohen’s answers were closer to home?

But the final act of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love changes the film’s key. After Cohen’s manager (and, briefly, lover) siphoned millions from his coffers, he was forced to go back on the road — where he found himself as never before as a performer. The most moving concert I’ve ever seen was at Radio City Music Hall in that first comeback tour: Shuffling, bopping, back on boogie street in a rakishly angled hat, Cohen seemed authentically grateful for the audience’s response. Footage of Cohen’s appearance in Oslo features Marianne in one of the front rows mouthing the words to “So Long, Marianne.” A Norwegian friend brings a camera to her deathbed, where he reads Leonard’s final so long to her, in which Cohen says he won’t be far behind and wishes his “old friend” “safe travels down the road.” No words of mine can do justice to that scene. However fickle Cohen could be in life, no one who doesn’t know love could have written that note — or, for that matter, a good many of Cohen’s songs.

My ideal Leonard Cohen documentary would contain another hour’s worth of concert footage and be screened outdoors on the island of Hydra. Otherwise, this is as full a filmed portrait of the man and his muse as you could ever hope to see.

The Story of the Greatest Breakup Song Ever Written