Leonard Cohen’s Greek island love story

Leonard Cohen’s Greek island love story

British director Nick Broomfield explores the lifelong love of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse in a new documentary which screens at this year’s JIFF.

Leonard Cohen at
work on the Greek
island of Hydra
during the 1960s.
Leonard Cohen at work on the Greek island of Hydra during the 1960s.

JUST days before she died, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen sent an especially touching message to his ailing former lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, the inspiration for classic songs such as So Long, Marianne and Bird on the Wire.

In it, Cohen told his Norwegian love: “I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Three months later, in November 2016, his prophecy came true and Cohen also passed away, aged 82.

Their relationship is explored in Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, the latest documentary from British director Nick Broomfield, who bookends the film with Marianne’s death, and fills the space in between with archival photos, previously unseen footage of Marianne shot by the great D A Pennebaker, and new interviews.

Nick Broomfield’s new film explores the lifelong love of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen, who inspired So Long, Marianne and Bird on the Wire.

He chronicles Cohen’s transition into songwriting, following his failure as a novelist, and the impact on Marianne and Axel, her son from a disastrous marriage.

At the centre of it all is Hydra, the Greek island where expats built a bohemian community, and the destination where Cohen and Ihlen first met, in 1960, and lived together.

Broomfield knows this world. He visited Hydra as a callow 20-year-old law student, a year after the release of Cohen’s 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and himself became one of Marianne’s lovers. Encouraged by her, Broomfield turned to filmmaking.

When the young traveller had arrived on Hydra, Cohen was in New York and unknown to him.

“I was pretty naive,” Broomfield recalled. “His album had come out, but I didn’t hear it until I went to the island. I could sense that he was held in a kind of reverence and people were in awe about him – I felt very out of my depth, and pretty inadequate.”

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love looks at the couple’s lifelong admiration for one another.

Broomfield found Hydra “spellbinding”, but it was a difficult place, “because there’s no rules, and no structure”.

For expats “looking for an alternative way of living, or experimenting with drugs and relationships, it was ruthless”.

While some people went too far and self-destructed, Cohen thrived. “He was a very disciplined, three-page-a-day kind of guy, and kept to that pretty much throughout his life,” said Broomfield.

When Cohen was growing up, his father had wanted to send him to Kingston Military Academy, but after his father died, his mother wanted a different life for him.

“Cohen always had a great admiration for the military though, and was sorely tempted to join the Israeli army, later on. He wasn’t a straightforward ’60s poet,” said Broomfield.

Marianne and Leonard Cohen first met in 1960.

Another formative influence was his grandfather, a scholar of the Talmud, who encouraged Cohen to read religious texts.

Shared Jewish roots later bonded Cohen and a Romanian-born Canadian poet, Irving Layton, whose widow appears in the documentary, but Marianne wasn’t Jewish, and it was important to Cohen that the mother of his children be so.

During a visit to Broomfield, Marianne asked him to drive her to Bath for an abortion.

“I think Leonard was very traditional. I know from talking to other people who knew them that there were a number of other abortions. When Marianne talks in the film about not having children with him, you can tell it’s a deep regret.”

Director Nick Broomfield in his younger years.

Broomfield had the “strange privilege” of being someone whom she knew she could trust and wouldn’t judge her, but confesses that it was “a disturbing experience”.

It would be easy to see Marianne as the muse who got walked over. There are periods of loneliness and longing in the film, but it was the 1960s and Marianne and Cohen had an open relationship.

Cohen seems to have been able to compartmentalise his feelings and life more.

In New York, Cohen resided at the notorious Chelsea Hotel – where he had a fling with Janis Joplin, famously immortalised in his song Chelsea Hotel No 2 – while Marianne stayed in an apartment on Clinton Street.

“He felt that she didn’t belong in New York, that she wouldn’t really understand the whole Andy Warhol scene that was happening at Chelsea Hotel,” said Broomfield. 

“I guess he was very keen on Nico and all the other women that were around, too. It was a fast and furious time.”

Leonard Cohen in 1993.

Broomfield interviewed Marianne’s roommate, but decided against including her in the film. 

“She didn’t like Leonard at all. But I felt this was a story about enduring love, and a complicated relationship, and I didn’t really want to do a blame portrait.”

Broomfield claims Marianne never harboured any bitterness towards Cohen, and only felt hurt that he hadn’t bought her a new house on Hydra to replace the one she’d sold when he was struggling.

“Leonard and Marianne were devoted, one way or another, to each other. Marianne learnt so much from Leonard, and he obviously benefited so much from her pushing him into what he became,” Broomfield insisted.

“I think she saw their relationship as something that was hugely enriching and positive in her life.”

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love screens at the Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF) in Sydney and Melbourne. Bookings: jiff.com.au.

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