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How sad and unfulfilling must be the life of a muse? Granted, this is probably not the intended takeaway from Nick Broomfield’s dewy-eyed new documentary “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.” With rhapsodic reverence, the film chronicles an intense, unsustainable romance between Leonard Cohen and Norwegian single mom Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra during the swinging-est summers of the swinging ‘60s. Their affair famously inspired Cohen to write "So Long, Marianne" — the loveliest and most wistful of all breakup songs, and that is indeed a picture of Ihlen playfully pecking at a typewriter on the back cover of his second album, 1969’s “Songs from a Room.”
For a while, we’re told, they lived in domestic tranquility on this island paradise surrounded by expat artists and psychedelic seekers. Hydra is fondly recalled as a free-love free-for-all — an enchanted enclave where beautiful young people frolicked and fornicated in a druggy, sun-kissed stupor. In old interviews Cohen warmly reminisces about writing his novel “Beautiful Losers” zonked on acid while muse Marianne dutifully brought him sandwiches. He even became something of a father figure to young Axel, Ihlen’s troubled son from a previous marriage.
But all idylls must eventually end, and this one busted up badly when our melancholy poet rather accidentally became a folk music superstar. As happens so often in show business, the lure of women and the road soon became too much for their relationship to bear. Or as Cohen himself sang in that fond farewell tune, “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ is fastening my ankle to a stone.”
Cutting together sun-dappled, dreamy home movies (some shot by the director’s mentor D.A. Pennebaker) with contemporary interviews, generous helpings of the 1974 tour documentary “Bird on a Wire” and familiar footage from Cohen’s concerts, Broomfield fashions a patchwork tribute that stutter-steps through the decades in fits and starts. While the after-effects of this doomed romance ripple through the rest of their lives, “Words of Love” wobbles in and out of narrative focus, sometimes losing sight of Marianne altogether and settling into a traditional VH1 “Behind the Music” biography of the morose troubadour. This is especially curious, as Broomfield is quick to inform us during the film’s opening minutes that he once had a fling with Ihlen, too.
Fans of Broomfield docs are well familiar with his penchant for inserting himself into a story. The British muckracker presents a bumbling, Lt. Columbo countenance, hitting his head on lights and boom mics as a trick to lull unsavory interview subjects into letting their guards down. His best films — 1995’s “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” and 1998’s “Kurt and Courtney” are my two personal faves — find the filmmaker blundering around the bottom rungs of show business, allowing cretinous characters to incriminate themselves. (This is why his raggedly affecting 2017 “Whitney: Can I Be Me” handled the Houston family far more adroitly than the following year’s slick, estate-approved “Whitney.”)
But Broomfield isn’t nearly so adept at hagiography, and “Words of Love” really could’ve used a director less enamored of Leonard Cohen’s legend. Of course, that would have deprived us of the pointless, often unintentionally hilarious asides during which the filmmaker presents flattering photos of his studly, 20-year-old self in his subject’s bedroom. “Marianne took this picture,” he tells us time and again, eye-rollingly employing romance novel language to remind us that once upon a time he was also “her lover.”
There’s something icky and invasive about all this. After Leonard and Marianne split for good the film follows Cohen’s career along a standard rock doc trajectory, with good ole’ boy guitarist Ron Cornelius spilling wild stories of debauchery, endless groupies and superhuman drug consumption. (I’m always tickled by tales of Leonard Cohen partying harder than Led Zeppelin because the guy looks so much like a suburban dentist.) Then every once in awhile we briefly check back in with Marianne, who seems to have led a quietly unhappy life, forever pestered by paparazzi in the shadow of her famous ex. I mean, how would you feel if your most painful breakup became so many people’s favorite song?
What the movie needed was more of the no-nonsense perspective offered by Aviva Layton, the third wife of Cohen’s mentor Irving Layton. “Poets do not make splendid husbands,” Aviva informs us. (She should know. Hers married two more times before his death in 2005.) Her commentary cuts through the movie’s sticky nostalgia and foggy hero worship to address the awful and untimely ends that befell so many hedonists on the island of Hydra, the list of casualties including Marianne’s son Axel, who was institutionalized.
It feels tacky and ungallant of Broomfield to be parading his old relationship with Ihlen around like this, especially when his camera crew invades her sickbed. (She died in July of 2016, just three months before Leonard.) Cohen wrote her the most beautiful goodbye note, though it's not one I feel like we have any right to be reading. “My love for him destroyed me,” Ihlen confesses earlier in the film, and at an Oslo stop on one of Leonard’s final tours the cameras are shoved in Marianne’s tear-streaked face during their signature song. Listening to the lyrics again it's no wonder why she always said it wasn’t one of her favorites.
“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” opens Friday, July 12th at the Kendall Square and West Newton Cinemas.
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