Leonard Cohen’s obituary was not published until a couple days after the 2016 presidential election, an event so seismic that many are still reeling from it. It is also possible that Cohen’s fans did not properly process his death: important things were on their mind, and that year already saw the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and more. Marianne & Leonard: Word of Love, an intimate documentary about the singer and his lover, offers an appropriate goodbye. Director Nick Broomfield involves himself in the story, indulging in revisionism of the 1960s, and yet the film’s more emotional arc is ultimately more poignant than that.
Most of the film is set on Hydra, an idyllic Greek island where Leonard Cohen once lived with Marianne Ihlen, a beautiful Norwegian woman who served as his muse. This was years before Cohen become pop music’s most unlikely star, and instead was a struggling novelist and poet. Broomfield describes Hydra as a place untouched by time or modernity – he once lived there with Marianne – and that thread continues through the present. From there, he veers into a more conventional Cohen biography, including his unlikely late return to performing, and yet Marianne always lurks in the background of his life.
The film traverses the line between biography and memoir, so of course Broomfield relies on interviews, narration, and archival footage. He films the interviews as if we should take them at face value, even if all these nostalgic old-timers are prone to aggrandizement and exaggeration. One of the more memorable interviewees is Ron Cornelius, a good ol’ boy who you might not expect to be Cohen’s confidant. He tells a great story about how Cohen and his band would perform at mental institutions, in an attempt to provide comfort to those society has cast out. Additional detail blurs the line between fact and legend, but Cohen is enigmatic enough so that either possibility is tantalizing.
The anthropological “remember the sixties” component behind Words of Love is where Broomfield nearly loses the story. Multiple sections detail Cohen’s approach to free love. Broomfield narrates the film, and the way he says “lover” recalls that Saturday Night Live sketch with Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as pretentious, hypersexual creeps. Marianne also indulged in that milieu, except after her breakup with Cohen, she returned to an ordinary life. Young love ultimately proves a powerful force for both of them, and the film’s final sections are all about reconciliation in those crucial final moments.
Cohen’s music – introspective, moody, dark – provides additional context and texture for the film. We learn that Marianne was the inspiration for “So Long, Marianne,” although we rarely hear it, since it is practically a barn-burner among Cohen’s early work. Instead, the film treats Cohen like a reactive artist, one who was prone to outside influence (his collaboration with Phil Spector was a disaster). For someone so singular, in terms of voice and lyrical content, Marianne & Leonard effectively disabuses the idea that artists lead lives of creativity and seclusion. By the time we see Cohen perform later in life, looser and happier than before, there is a strange wisdom that’s paradoxically tied to silliness. Cohen didn’t real grow into himself until he learned to laugh.
The most important words in Marianne & Leonard are not song lyrics, poetry, or even a confessional interview. It is a letter Cohen wrote to Marianne shortly before they both died. In just a few words, he manages to articulate the happiness, regret, and bittersweet longing of their lifelong relationship. The letter is a fitting farewell to Marianne, and it clearly moves her (we watch as it’s read to her on her deathbed). Everyone should be so lucky to receive such a letter, but few musicians or writers had Leonard’s command of language. Although Marianne is gone for long stretches of Cohen’s life, she never quite left his heart, and since there are few genuine observers in our lives, saying goodbye to them is an important part of making peace with death. Marianne & Leonard understands the need for that grace, and suggests we must remember it in our final days.