@Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Mon 29 Jul 2019.
Calliope, Dora Maar, Patti Smith, Gala Dalí and yes, Rhianna all share one thing in common. To one person or a number, they are Muses; inspirational figures who evoke artistic passion into (largely male) writers, painters, sculptors and astronomers. Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love superficially excavates a 50-year relationship between an artist and his muse.
The Leonard on which Broomfield focuses is the one and only Leonard Cohen. The Canadian singer, poet, novelist and the man behind ‘Hallelujah’, undoubtedly his most well-known song. Marianne Ihlen was, not only for Cohen, a Norwegian Muse and mother. She was Cohen’s lover, friend and inspiration for ‘So Long, Marianne‘. His use of the term ‘Words of Love’ ties to various aspects of the documentary, more so than one would first expect. The letters the pair would send to one another, and the songs she would inspire. Despite top-billing, Nick Broomfield’s documentary retains focus on Cohen, with Marianne’s input slinking in and out of focus. His theory seems to derive from her impact rather than the women herself.
From their meeting on the isle of Hydra, we leave Marianne behind as Cohen propels his career into the lands of drugs, sex and religious monasteries. While creating a documentary principally on Cohen, Broomfield intentionally weaves the isle itself into the narrative. Not only examining the pair but Marianne’s influence on other people and the impact she had. A chief success is Broomfield’s brutal discussion on the essence of island life, and those left behind by the sixties counterculture of free love.
Presentation for the production is primarily archive footage and audio clips from numerous sources, chiefly the BBC. One appealing aspect of the documentary is new interviews with the likes of Judy Collins and Ron Cornelius. These offer a substantial reason for fans of Cohen to watch the documentary, and for those unfamiliar, they are the nearest to real engagement we receive. Floating questions, Broomfield allows them to flow into their own stories, allowing for clear answers to the subject, but offhand jokes, stories and insights.
As you watch, you’re forgiven for asking where Ihlen is. Broomfield seems to relegate the driving force of the film into the background. She ebbs and flows, never being too prominent in the documentary. The audio clips and footage, when brought into use, are touching and quite often the documentary’s legitimate points. Perhaps intentionally, she is kept to shadows. Ihlen is not a permanent fixture for these men, but instead, her input is more akin to an occasional guide. Broomfield may place her in high respects but pays respect to the woman as more than a muse. As a mother, friend and human.
Broomfield has an auteurist habit of placing himself within his work, nowhere more so than Marianne & Leonard. Evidently, due to his close involvement with the pair, openly stating his previous position as a lover of Marianne. It’s no wonder that this elevates the documentary outside of the realistic realms. There’s a definite sense of pedestalling both Ihlen and Cohen, the former especially.
There is no doubt in the poignancy of the documentaries deeply compassionate scenes. It’s ending leaps, beyond touching into an earnest look at genuine humanity. Few and far between, small islands of sincerity exist in an ocean of inconclusive intention. Fuelling Broomfield’s documentary is a deep intimacy. It’s a documentary which, despite its namesake, feels less a study on the closeness of the pair or Marianne’s impact and instead, a condensing of Cohen’s life. Broomfield achieves tremendous heart, moments of genuine emotion but frustration in the direction taken.