Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
"There's a genuine beauty here - this is as much a love letter to love as it is the story of a complicated relationship and the branches (Broomfield included) that sprang from it." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

"Under the Greek moon and stars" with "so much freedom it was dangerous" is, was, Hydra - an island made paradise for a certain class of international artist. There Marianne met Leonard, and, well, that would be telling.

Cohen's most famous song is Hallelujah, a song with some 200 words, one with cover versions so numerous that you could have a different artist recorded sing each word in turn and have enough left over to get halfway through again. The films of Nick Broomfield are at once more and less distinct - I don't know if it's fair to call him a cult documentarian but his tone and style are so distinct that however translated it'd be easy to recognise.

So too here. Broomfield is almost always a feature of his own films and here he steals a march on himself by being on Hydra at the time, a callow youth, in a relationship with the eponymous Marianne, one illustrated by artefacts and stories that form part of the surprises. This is unflinching, sometimes sardonic, but it does not feel like anything has been elided.

"Poets do not make good husbands," we are told, and various and many are the ways in which this is true. With interviews without obvious interlocutor, narration by Broomfield and through subtitle, island wanderings, archive footage, this is a story of a romance. Romance with a capital letter, a moment of beauty recalled at leisure, with detours through sexual license and Mediterranean penury, scandal and issues of copyright, the inevitable intersections of daffodils and debt.

There are revelations, some shorn of power by a lack of context. I hadn't known that record industry machinations had paired the lugubrious Cohen with Phil Spector, but my surprise was informed by the contrast between the lush arrangements of the Wall of Sound and the sparse (even Spartan) strings of Cohen. The suggestion that working with Spector meant "biting into revolvers with your hamburger" was almost inevitable gains extra power if you know why Spector was jailed. Though to focus on Leonard is to miss Marianne (and the pronunciation is important) and the film does not.

Other stories are more personal. The central relationship here is just that, part of a web of wooing and words both more and less crude than that. This is history, of muse and music, and more.

There's a genuine beauty here - this is as much a love letter to love as it is the story of a complicated relationship and the branches (Broomfield included) that sprang from it. There are interviews that are as powerful in their honesty as they are simple in their framing. There is archive footage, there are historical photographs, there are so many sources and stories in and around a tale of a twosome. Love letter as well because amongst the artefacts are last messages, epistle as epitaph, and all the more powerful for it. This is a bit of a tearjerker, despite its occasional moments of levity, and one whose appeal is likely to be wider because of its subject than its author. Broomfield's approach as participant observer has its quirks but his voice is a familiar one, albeit perhaps not as much as Cohen's. This is a fitting testament to an old story - boy meets girl. There's more to it than that to make it interesting, but just enough.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2019
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A story of enduring love between Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen. The film follows their relationship from the early days in Greece, a time of ‘free love’ and open marriage, to how their love evolved when Leonard became a successful musician.

Director: Nick Broomfield

Year: 2019

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US


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