Love stories are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: no two of them are alike. But even given that, the relationship chronicled in “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” has a quality very much its own.
Though it lasted only eight years, and was a train wreck for the last few, the connection between singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen, haunted everyone who knew them and proved to be so powerful it never totally went away. In fact, as related by director Nick Broomfield in this affecting documentary, when Ihlen was days away from death in 2016, Cohen, who was himself to die just a few months later, sent her a note.
“I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand,” he wrote. “I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. Safe travels, old friend, see you down the road. Your Leonard.”
Though British veteran Broomfield is an accomplished documentarian, telling this kind of poignant story is not business as usual for him. Rather he’s best known for hard-edged, scrappy films like “Biggie & Tupac,” “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” and two documentaries on serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Re-creating the emotional texture of a volatile, passionate love affair, not so much.
But as it turns out, this film is personal for Broomfield as well. When he was a self-described “rather lost 20-year-old looking for adventure and excitement,” he met Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra. The affair the two of them had was brief, but Marianne’s impact was key to encouraging Broomfield to attempt documentary filmmaking and the two remained friends.
Because Ihlen was never the public figure that the often idolized Cohen was, “Words of Love” eventually becomes as much a documentary on him as a record of a relationship.
But that relationship does have pride of place, and as described by the participants in vintage audio and by people who knew him in contemporary interviews, it does fascinate.
The son of an elite Montreal family, Cohen was considered one of Canada’s best young poets when he arrived at Hydra in 1960 and fell immediately for Ihlen, who was coming out of an unhappy marriage.
As photographs from the period (as well as newly discovered film shot by director D.A. Pennebaker) attest, both Cohen and Ihlen were gorgeous though apparently neither one of them believed it about themselves.
Living together in a way that the film regards as a lost paradise, the couple saw things change when Cohen wrote a lyric he felt was a song and played it for Judy Collins on a trip to the U.S. The song was, of course, “Suzanne,” and though he originally loathed the idea, Collins dragooned him into eventually singing his own version, changing everything. As Collins wryly reports, Ihlen later told her “you ruined my life.”
For after Cohen blew up as a solo star, his obsessive chasing after women and their parallel pursuit of him effectively doomed his life with Marianne. “With so much freedom,” someone says, “people went too far.”
More than that, Cohen was apparently a self-tormenting individual who was, a friend says, “always needing to be more miserable.” Says the man himself at one point, “People around me suffered, I was always trying to get away. It was a selfish life though it didn’t seem so at the time.”
“Marianne & Leonard” benefits from the comments of those who know the couple well, especially the acerbic Aviva Layton, widow of Cohen’s great friend, the poet Irving Layton, whose philosophy of life, she reports, was “make sure you are doing the wrong thing.”
Though Cohen’s life after Marianne does not lack for interest — his time spent in the orbit of producer Phil Spector is especially chilling — it’s the Marianne stuff that stays with you.
“Poets do not make good husbands,” Aviva Layton says, and so it appears to be.
“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” a documentary directed by Nick Broomfield. 97 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens July 26 at Pacific Place. The Los Angeles Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.