Film Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
If anyone was still under the impression that being an artist’s “muse” was an enviable position to achieve, this familiar story should put that notion to rest. The headiness of being elevated by the ‘great artist’ is inevitably counterweighted by the competition of the siren call of fame, recognition and the unalloyed adoration of the public. The muse in this story is Marianne Ihlen, a pretty blond Norwegian woman living on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, with her husband and son, Axel. Hydra was a magnet for hedonistic young people, indulging in drugs and loose love. It is also the place where Leonard Cohen met and fell instantly in love with Marianne in what would become an intense, yet doomed affair.
Leonard was a little known poet from Canada, struggling to write his first novel, Beautiful Losers, and taking massive amounts of speed as a writing aid and to ward off depression which plagued him his entire life. Their relationship was quite open, as was the norm for the expats living in Hydra in the ’60s, and appears to have been quite joyful and warm. This relationship would only be possible for someone with huge stores of openness and tolerance to endure the egocentricity of a person like Leonard. His book was a huge disappointment critically, but his poetry was getting more and better attention. The failure of the book sent Leonard to New York City, where he met Judy Collins and introduced her to his song “Suzanne” by playing the guitar and singing it to her. She loved not just the song, but Leonard’s sung version of it, and dragged him kicking and screaming onto the stage. Thus began his career as a performer. She launched the song on her own album to huge acclaim, followed by many more that she has performed throughout her career to this day.
His performance career necessitated such long separations from Marianne that the relationship suffered terribly. He was constantly touring, constantly sleeping around, and having flings. Marianne had gotten divorced and frequently had affairs as well. After many years of neglect and infidelity, she finally left Leonard and returned to Norway where she found some nice Norwegian fellow to marry. Leonard’s career was successful but not smooth; his serious drug use was prodigious and did not ward off the bouts of equally serious depression. He would clean up by going on Buddhist retreats for months. Finally, after spending several years living monastically in what he imagined was retirement, he discovered that his longtime friend and agent had been stealing his money and left him nearly broke. While mounting a lawsuit against her, he was forced to make money the only way he knew how: by going on tour. It was a risky idea for a man in his 70’s who had not performed for over 15 years to relaunch his career.
What a major welcome he received. The rest is history. He was so enthusiastically embraced, it was as if the world had been hungering and thirsting for the man, his voice and his music. His final years were amazingly prolific and hugely successful. He did two exhausting world tours of 2 years each. He had many writing projects and was making music history. By 2016, at age 82, he was in bad health and anticipating his own death, when he received the news of Marianne’s imminent demise, he sent her a poem that he had written in Hydra which was read to her on her deathbed. She smiled as the words were read to her: “Pray that loving memory/Exists for them too/The precious ones I overthrew/For an education in the world”. “So Long, Marianne” was her legacy. Cohen died three months later. They are both immortalized in song. It is a bittersweet story well-told and full of treasures, immortalizing them both in song.