Not My Man

Leonard Cohen. Photo: Old Ideas, LLC.

NICK BROOMFIELD SAYS that his latest documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, is his most personal. I don’t agree, but then again, “personal” is always complicated. In 1968, twenty-year-old Broomfield visited Hydra, the sun-bleached Greek island bohemia where real estate was cheap and dope was plentiful, and open relationships were cultivated. There, Broomfield took his first acid trip, on LSD supplied by Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian woman about a decade his senior who’d acquired it from a London friend of her lover, Leonard Cohen. Ihlen, Cohen, and Axel—Ihlen’s son from a defunct marriage—lived together, mostly on Hydra, for about six years. During this time, Ihlen encouraged Cohen to write his second novel, Beautiful Losers. In return, Cohen helped her raise Axel and convinced her that she was beautiful. Much later in Broomfield’s film, someone who knew Cohen for years explains that he made women—many women—feel good about themselves, but he couldn’t give himself to any of them. By the time the director had his fling with Ihlen, Cohen was living mostly in New York, and his seemingly wacky idea of channeling his gift for poetry into songwriting had begun to pay off. After Judy Collins recorded his breakout song, “Suzanne,” in 1966, Ihlen wrote to Collins saying that she had ruined her life by covering Cohen’s music. Although Ihlen visited Cohen in New York and in his native Montreal, they spent less and less time together. During the early ’70s, when their relationship was on its last legs, she occasionally stayed in England with Broomfield. He was then an activist involved with the problem of slum clearance, and Ihlen suggested that he make a documentary about it.

What prompted Broomfield to make Marianne & Leonard was a letter Cohen wrote to Ihlen in 2016, after he heard that she was dying. By then, she had been living in Oslo for many years and had married a Norwegian man with two children from a previous relationship. Cohen had had several love affairs as significant as his with Ihlen, as well as a legendary number of fleeting encounters. Ihlen sometimes went to Cohen’s concerts, and Broomfield found some lovely footage of her in the audience during Cohen’s last tour, singing along to “So Long, Marianne.”

A friend of Ihlen’s filmed her in a hospital bed as she listened while Cohen’s letter was read aloud. “It’s beautiful,” says Ihlen, and then, marvelously undercutting anything solemn or maudlin in the moment, she cracks a joke about the nurse who is rubbing her feet, saying she hopes that Cohen has someone as good to rub his. The video went viral, most likely because Cohen had made an inadvertently public announcement of his own impending death. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” Ihlen died a few days after receiving the letter. Cohen followed her a little more than three months later.

Marianne Ihlen. Photo: Sundance Institute.

For Broomfield, the video brought back the brief, intoxicating experience of Hydra in the late ’60s. In addition to introducing him to LSD, Ihlen had shown him D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan portrait Dont Look Back (1967). One can easily imagine how the ur–music video that opens Pennebaker’s doc—a deadpan Dylan flashing keywords from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” scrawled one to a page, as the song blasts on the soundtrack—would have made a lasting impression on Cohen, who was writing poetry as well as novels but had not yet made the connection between the words on the page and the melodies of the folk songs, blues, and Hebrew liturgical chants that had been looping through his brain since childhood. Pennebaker had filmed Ihlen and her son on Hydra, and that sun-dappled footage, rescued from a vault, anchors the first section of Marianne & Leonard, along with still photos (one of a lush-lipped, blissed-out Broomfield), a few brief interview clips, both recent and archival, and a minimal voice-over, some of it supplied by Broomfield. Marianne & Leonard is a wistful, tender movie, but like all of Broomfield’s films, it avoids sentimentality and whitewashing. Several interviewees explain that open marriages and heavy drug use didn’t work for everyone, and the people damaged were often children, including Ihlen’s son.

In the film’s title, Broomfield gives Marianne billing over Leonard, but after Ihlen returns to Norway to become what someone calls “an ordinary housewife,” there are no images of her to work with. Ihlen and Cohen had both died before Broomfield began his film, so he couldn’t interview either of them—a pity, since direct encounters with his subjects, as in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), or with those his subjects have devastated, as in Biggie and Tupac (2002) and Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014), are at the heart of his greatest docs. These scenes, which are more like conversations than traditional interviews, and where Broomfield, sometimes with an audio recorder slung over his shoulder, is fully present, testify to his personal commitment to the documentary transaction. But in Marianne & Leonard, Broomfield functions more as an editor, particularly in the second half, which is virtually a Leonard Cohen collage.

Cohen’s life, from the moment he first stepped on stage, was exposed on film. We see him onstage, backstage, at parties, andm most remarkably, in a tiny apartment in the Zen monastery near the top of California’s Mount Baldy, where he lived for six years and was ordained a Buddhist monk. We see the hedonistic Cohen, the ascetic Cohen, and the workaholic Cohen, whose obsessive desire for perfection was inseparable from his fear of failure. I’m sure that Cohen fans will find this moving and even revelatory, but I am not a Cohen fan. Indeed, I was only interested in seeing this film because I wanted to see what Broomfield made of him, and I don’t think he makes much. In the end, the film is about a relationship, and the evidence suggests to some that Ihlen hung on too long to a man clearly incapable of commitment, and to others that the letter is proof of undying love and that in a corner of her mind, Ihlen, as one friend opines, was married to Cohen until the end. Broomfield leaves it to you, but by returning at the end of the film to the image of a sun-kissed Ihlen on the deck of a sailboat, her long blonde hair tossed by the wind, he shows her and her bond to Cohen as inseparable from a ’60s paradise that could neither last nor be repeated.

George Fok, Passing Through, 2017, multichannel video installation, black-and-white and color, sound, 56 minutes 15 seconds. Installation view, the Jewish Museum, New York, 2019.

My antipathy toward Cohen began with the third line of “Suzanne,” released by the songwriter himself on his 1967 debut album. I hated that Suzanne, the singer’s object of desire, “was half-crazy.” Because too many men I yearned for around that time yearned for “crazy” ladies, those who were mysterious and even threatening but also easy to look down on from the heights of patriarchal rationality—the place where power resides. “Suzanne” is also an ode to the mind-body split. In the first chorus, the man touches the woman’s perfect body with his mind. But after some hanky-panky with Jesus (who in Cohen’s mythology is always a Jewish martyr), the man obtains a perfect body, which the woman is allowed to touch with her mind. This gendered, dualist version of patriarchal idealism underlies all of Cohen’s writing. Although, as he aged he did occasionally question why it didn’t work out for him. That’s my hasty conclusion, having listened to more than a dozen Cohen albums in the past week. He composed great melodies—earworms that were much more structurally complex than they seemed—and was no slouch with harmonies, but more often than not he ruined the music with his lyrics. The exception, of course, is “Hallelujah,” which I first heard covered by John Cale and for years believed that he had written it.

The worst version of “Hallelujah” I have ever experienced is the VR sing-along by Zach Richter in “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” curated by John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman. The exhibition originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal in 2017 and is now at the Jewish Museum in New York through September 8. Conceived as a tribute to Cohen by visual artists and musicians, it is almost entirely made up of pieces ranging from tepid to fawningly vacuous. There are three exceptions: Taryn Simon’s The New York Times, Friday, November 11, 2016, a vitrine displaying the front page of the paper of record with Cohen’s photo and the first lines of his obituary on the left side below the fold, and, centered at the top, a more prominent photo of President Obama and President-elect Trump meeting in the White House; Tacita Dean’s Ear on a Worm, a 16-mm film loop of a finch perched on a telephone wire, the punning title of which instantly evokes the sound of one of Cohen’s most compelling tunes, “Bird on the Wire”; and Candice Breitz’s marvelous sound/image work “I’m Your Man” (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), in which eighteen male senior citizens, each life-size on a separate screen, look directly at the viewer as they sing the entirety of the titular album; on a video in a separate room, a chorus from the Westmount synagogue, to which Cohen belonged all his life, sings backup harmony. Breitz’s piece is worth the price of admission.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love was released in theaters on July 5.