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Film review: Marianne and Leonard: Words of love

20 August 2019

Stephen Brown watches a documentary on love and Leonard Cohen

© babis mores

A photo of Leonard and Marianne used in the documentary

A photo of Leonard and Marianne used in the documentary

REMEMBER that vicar trapped by an avalanche keeping his spirits up singing Leonard Cohen songs? Well, each to his own. You won’t find much cheer in Marianne and Leonard: Words of love (Cert. 12A), a documentary about him and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen.

Nick Broomfield’s film presents us with two conflicted personalities. Leonard, under Marianne’s guidance, composes music more likely to accompany people jumping off buildings than helping them brave snowstorms. Meagre snatches of Cohen songs are highly pertinent to the story. Words from “The Stranger” reveal much about Leonard: “It’s hard to hold the hand of someone reaching for the sky.”

Various people vainly strive to do so. He embraces Scientology, Erhard Seminar Training (EST), and Zen Buddhism, while repeatedly acknowledging his Jewish roots and Christian offspring. Cohen could well be epitomised as “just some Joseph looking for a manger”. His longtime guitarist Ron Cornelius says: “He lived in darkness.” The numerous biblical references in his lyrics emphasise the Fall and the crucifixion. Even “Hallelujah” (of which there are more than 300 cover versions) may only be uttered as possibly “broken”.

He and Marianne meet on Hydra. They become lovers. Neither remains monogamous. Broomfield (as usual in his films) makes an appearance. He was one of Marianne’s paramours. Leonard is restless. “When I get up in the morning my real concern is to discover whether I’m in a state of grace.” Cohen’s spiritual quest appears oblivious of the human wreckage surrounding him. He considers himself fortunate to have lived when people could express themselves sexually without any consequences. One survivor of those hedonistic years describes herself as “irreparably damaged”. “Poets do not make great husbands,” says Aviva Layton, a close friend and observer of the couple. They’re only ever permanently committed to their art.

As “Bird on a Wire” puts it “I’ve tried in my way to be free.” Inspired by Marianne, it requests a qualified forgiveness: “And if I have been untrue/ I hope you know it was never to you.” Marianne isn’t necessarily all victim herself. She is not above engaging in the island’s numerous affairs, and drug and alcohol abuse — symptoms, perhaps, of her own misery. Don Lowe, who continues to live on Hydra, didn’t find her easy to get on with, but acknowledges that later she mellowed.

Some critics have perceived the film as a tender love story. It is more like a race to the bottom, their teeth deep in one another’s necks, scared to let go and bleed to death. Cohen does gradually move away. His fans will already know that there were other, usually female, muses — Suzanne Verdal, for instance.

The words of love in the film’s title refers to the message that Leonard sent the dying Marianne. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to hold your hand. . . See you down the road.” These were, apparently, enough for her to die happy. “That’s what words of love can do,” a friend says; but are they enough justification for “the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world”? The film is a salutary reminder not to get too close to your heroes.

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