Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016 at 82, has hardly lacked for biographical coverage; his almost cultish following, especially in Europe, has ensured that. But partially as a result of sheer chance, Nick Broomfield, perhaps best known for his exercises in what is called “Direct Cinema,” brings a fresh perspective to his life in “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.”
The unique viewpoint is indicated in the title, which puts Marianne Ihlen, one of the women in Cohen’s life, first. In actuality she is not the more prominent of the two in the film; Cohen takes pride of place, with far more footage devoted to him, both in terms of his early years in Canada and his later musical career. But Ihlen is treated as the connecting link in the film, which begins in earnest when she takes on the role of Cohen’s earliest muse and ends with his final message to her as she lies near death; he would die soon after.
Broomfield’s ability to structure the film as a diptych is based on his own experience, which allows him easily to insert himself into the documentary as he often does with his films. In 1968, after his first year of college, he took an Aegean cruise and visited the island of Hydra, where a small community of artists had taken up residence some time before. Among them he met Ihlen, who had arrived a decade earlier with her husband Alex Jensen. The couple had a son, also named Alex, but had a tumultuous relationship, and her husband eventually abandoned Marianne and their child.
Marianne advised Broomfield to take up filmmaking, which had a formative influence on him. But she had earlier been instrumental in supporting Cohen, who had come to Hydra in 1960 and had become involved with Ihlen. It was she who encouraged him to turn from novels and poetry, at which he had had marginal success, to songwriting, and after he returned to Canada, with a little push from Judy Collins, his success as a performer followed.
Ihlen followed Broomfield to England, but eventually left for America, where Cohen was now well established. They did not resume their old closeness, however, and though they remained in contact over the following decades, Cohen saw her less and less, something he refers to in concert footage Broomfield includes. The situation between them was reflected in Cohen’s song “So Long, Marianne.”
Broomfield thus had personal knowledge of Ihlen’s relationship with Cohen. He also had access to footage that filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (a pioneer in the “Direct Cinema” movement) had shot when he met Ihlen on Hydra in 1967, and that, along with other archival material Broomfield was able to collect, allows him to juxtapose a mini-biography of her with the more elaborate one he gives of Cohen—which extends to the singer’s lengthy retreat to a Buddhist monastery, the theft of his fortune by his manager while he was there, and his late-in-life recovery of fame.
“Words of Love” is a penetrating addition to the corpus of biographical material on Cohen, expanding on an important element of his life which, while not unknown before now—Ihlen was a source for Kari Hesthamar’s book “So Long, Marianne,” after all—but is here given a centrality it appears to deserve in a form that will give it wider currency. Added to that is the fact that Broomfield threads into his narrative an array of new interview material that illuminates their individual lives as well as their relationship.
The result is a film that Cohen’s many fans will find fascinating, but that those relatively unfamiliar with him might find even more so.