“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love”

A Fine Sadness

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic


“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” director Nick Broomfield’s studious documentary centering on the love affair between poet/songwriter/folk-rocker Leonard Cohen and his acknowledged  muse, Marianne Ihlen, is recommended here, but with cautious reservation. When my friend Benny texted just as I exited the theater, informing that he was at the iconic Frank Pepe’s pizzeria in New Haven, and wanted to know where I was, the details of my whereabouts triggered a request for my first review. Pressed into service, but kind of thinking a little about the contrasting happiness of the delicious white clam pizza that abounded where Benny sat, I blurted my first impression thusly: “Sad, but poignant and sociologically important.”


While educative and soulfully committed to a fair and respectful homage to the lovers in question, methinks Mr. Broomfield can’t help but entwine himself in the melancholia of the subject, which, by the way, is probably the best approach. Any varnishing of the truths emanating from his acknowledgedly accurate account would be to choose entertainment value over honesty. The thought is, possessing the temper and timber of something you’d expect from a seminar at a university, the amusement value is in the philosophical verities divulged, and in those ideas which may be engendered in the viewer.


Yet at the same time, there is a basic simplicity running concurrent to the headier meditations, the ability of Broomfield via Cohen to appreciate that which we can glean joy from without deep consideration: things like the beauty of a coastline or the warmth of a friendship. Still, any hope by intellectual sorts and dilettantes such as myself that “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” might attract an audience beyond its obvious niche appeal would be both Pollyanna and a tad condescending. I mean, were they alive, I could see Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe digging the fatalistic view of Leonard and Marianne’s affaire de coeur, but not so, Marilyn and Joe D.


Hence, filmgoers who aren’t poetically inclined, and have no interest in literature, folk-rock or the socio-historical impact of the 1960s, need not apply. However, I have to tell you, in absorbing the interesting facets of Mr. Cohen’s life and how his Norwegian born afflatus, Marianne, influenced him, I couldn’t help but hope that some college sophomore, stumbling into the local art house, might get an epiphanic jolt of the education this film makes available. In the current climate of racism that has grabbed way too much of the American public by the throat, works of this sort are as important as ever, to spread the gospel of good, hope, peace, love and mercy


That established, in Broomfield’s filmic monograph the desire to scrupulously contribute, to lay down for posterity the facts as best they can be ascertained, is evident. We are moved…our consternation and occasional dismay in the face of stark divulgences be damned if we are to benefit from our better explorers of the human spirit


On a more personal level, this means also delving into the bittersweet angst and joys of Leonard and Marianne’s relationship, and perhaps in the process recognizing ourselves and our lovers in their challenging experience. You know… I should have said this… I should have done that.


But before I get too maudlin, here’s some quick notes, my Classic Comic Book encapsulation. Canadian born, his mother looney, after matriculation at McGill and a brief stint at Columbia grad, Cohen celebrated the ‘60s on the Greek island of Hydra where he met the eventually feted Marianne. Whether together, apart or with other partners, a lifelong love affair ensues. He writes a novel or two, unheralded, and, starting first with songwriting, wends his way into folk rock immortality. He dabbles in Buddhism and, for a time, becomes a monk. Yeah, really.


Incongruously, while a womanizer abetted and spurred on by the era of Free Love, he puts the women of his life and songs on a pedestal. The inherent anomaly will challenge his formidable intellect and vex his poetic idealism until the end of his days. Within in it all, giving and tolerant, Marianne tries to find herself in the romantic vortex of her adoring but conflicted lover. All of which gives us pause. We mull and meditate… the root DNA of humankind’s frustration thus evidenced by someone who sure tried his darndest to find the secret of life.


Postscript: In the 1960s and early ‘70s, while most of my friends were at concerts, I was at the movies. And so, while I was enamored of the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen somehow avoided my gaze. But now, with the elucidative “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” I am a fan late to the party, to which I must say, Hallelujah.

“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” rated R, is directed by Nick Broomfield and features archived footage of Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen and Judy Collins. Running time: 102 minutes