Updated: August 13, 2021 8:04:33 pm
So Long, Marianne — Leonard Cohen’s aching ode to his muse Marianne Ihlen — is a lament dressed as a love song. It is the tenderest break-up anthem, enclosing his plea to leave and astonishment on being left. It is every Cohen song ever. Throughout the runtime, the singer traces the lifetime of his relationship with cherished intimacy, singing every shared-moment with affection, including the farewell like the reason is incidental but the message is everything, like they have to part so that they can meet again, like they can meet only if they part again. In Nick Broomfield’s outing — a deeply intimate, revelatory documentary on the couple — he maps this decade-long relationship that lasted a lifetime.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love begins with the end: Marianne is on her deathbed in 2016 and Cohen sends her a letter expressing “endless love and gratitude”. It is followed by footage from his performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970. Like an impatient lover eager to tell their story, the singer recollects the history behind So Long, Marianne to the crowd; composed keeping his then partner in mind. His eyes look vacant but not restless like he is assured she is there. As the documentary unfolds, it contextualises the need for her to summon him when passing and his certainty of her presence in a sea of strangers.
The couple met at Hydra during the 60s, both fugitives from their past. She had moved from Oslo and was stuck in an unhappy marriage with Norwegian author Axel Jensen. He had come from Montreal looking to make a career out of writing. The idyllic Greek island sucked them in, assisting both to make a home out of a place. It was the age of excesses, open marriages and drugs; a haven for the inspired souls. Cohen would sit under the sun and write while Marianne would tend to him. After his book Beautiful Losers failed to impress the critics, a disheartened Cohen travelled to New York to meet Judy Collins and in there sang Suzanne, a song that will teach an entire generation to love a name with the urgency of a person. On discovering himself as a singer, Cohen started staying more and more in New York and although he called for Marianne and her son Axel (“Have house all I need is my woman and her son”), things were never the same.
The narrative from here is typical. Cohen will rapidly become one of the most distinctive singers of his time, “a poet for the quasi-depressed women of his era” as composer John Lissauer says, shrinking Marianne’s presence in his life. This is the story of every artist and their muse, a tragic instance of great art standing on the crutches of emotional duress. But Broomfield insists it was different with them.
“A large part of my life was escaping,” Cohen says in a voice-over (Broomfield extensively uses recording of his interview with DA Pennebaker, the singer’s plain voice captivates like a chant). Nothing could hold him back. Even when things were good, they were never good enough for him. This perennial discontent, a veiled artistic impulse to draw experience and sharpen their expertise, lent a transience to him, making him enticing and unattainable. It is what drove him from Montreal, Hydra and later from Marianne. At one point Aviva Layton, former wife of Canadian poet Irving Layton says, “Poets do not make great husbands. You can’t own them.” Cohen, she believed, was afflicted with a similar ailment. “He could love women from a distance, make them feel good, but he wouldn’t give himself to them. He couldn’t give himself away,”
But this was a love story. Broomfield, Marianne’s friend till the end, looks at the couple for what they could have been through what they ended up becoming, interjecting the narrative with his memory of them and supplementing it with rare archival images and videos of both together. He designs the documentary to mimic the silhouette of the relationship, blurring timelines and highlighting equality in their unequal miseries. If they do not subscribe to the artist-muse template it is because the debilitating powerlessness of being in love appears mutual.
Broomfield recounts Marianne never quite recovering from the relationship even though she moved back to Oslo, got married to someone, divorced and married him again. He, however, never includes her bitterness. His refrain signaling the common truth: resentment, when shared takes the shape of pain.
Cohen wrote about love even when he did not. His words conjure up an image of a frail man tortured by love and famished for it, scorched with envy and mortified by it, bound by fate and liberated from it. Love is both a disease and a drug, the journey and the destination, the reason for leaving and the cause of being left behind. There is a crack in his words from where the light comes in, illuminating every emotion and every story, every joy and every plight with the warmth of the emotion. When he sings, even Hallelujah sounds like a forlorn cry of a lovesick man. If his voice bears the solemnity of a devotion it is because his songs are fervent prayers, seeking salvation and escape, raising suspicion and appeal like they are raging against a god who is “forsaken almost human”. Cohen wrote about someone even when he did not.
Broomfield’s narrative accomplishment resides in the conviction with which he underlines Marianne to be that person– not just the muse but the voice behind the singer’s thoughts, his “mirrored twin”, his “next of kin”, the only one who will take him in “a thousand kisses deep”–even though Cohen continued to be with other women. His inability to leave even after leaving evidence it is to her he says, “I showed my heart to the doctor/ He said I just have to quit/ Then he wrote himself a prescription/ And your name was mentioned in it”; she is the one he will “make up to” after tearing “everyone who reached out for me”; the one he met at the Chelsea Hotel. If Cohen lived to write, his writing reflected his life; his songs worded his thoughts and his words belonged to Marianne. He couldn’t give himself away so he carried her with him.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love includes moments from Cohen’s final tour (2008-2010), his first in a decade after being bankrupt. We see a frail and gaunt Cohen performing So Long, Marianne. His eyes this time are closed like he knows Marianne is in the crowd. She is, waving her hands and singing along. This is followed by Marianne listening to the letter Cohen sent, a moment so emotionally visceral that you feel privileged to be witnessing it. Broomfield reverses the opening sequence with this arrangement, creating a narrative knot for both to escape. They do. Cohen passed away four months later.
Perennially scared of being outdone by someone else, Cohen made a famous exception in Famous Blue Raincoat, addressing it to his lover’s lover, thanking him for taking the trouble from her eyes, “I thought it was there for good/ So I never tried.” It is a song of moving generosity, coming closest to defining the distinct way Cohen loved. With Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Broomfield, Marianne’s former lover, returns the favour.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is streaming on Netflix
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