Marianne and Leonard

The love story of Marianne Ilhen and Leonard Cohen is recounted in "Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love."

“Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love” begins at the end. The year was 2016, and Marianne Ihlen was an 81-year-old woman lying on her deathbed. She received a message from an old friend and lover — songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. Though they hadn’t been romantically involved for nearly half a century, they remained friends, and the ardor Cohen poured into the note shows his feelings never really dimmed.

“I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand,” Cohen wrote. Ilhen died in July 2016, and then Cohen died three months later.

Nic Broomfield’s documentary “Marianne and Leonard” spans the half-century of their intense, sometimes tortured relationship, how it began and how it ended, and how neither Cohen or Ilhen could replace the loss in their hearts.

Broomfield has made several documentaries about famous artists before (“Kurt & Courtney”), but he’s in a unique position to tell this story. He was with Cohen and Ilhen around the time they met, on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, and was briefly Ilhen’s lover as well. “Marianne and Leonard” has the messy intimacy of digging through old photographs and letters, piecing together a great love story and its painful aftermath.

Both Cohen and Ilhen came to Hydra looking to escape. Ilhen was escaping an unhappy marriage in Norway, and Cohen was running away from his own uncertainties as a struggling young artist. Hydra seems like an idyllic place, where the new lovers could focus exclusively on what mattered to them: love and art.

“We played, we drank, we discussed,” Ilhen said in an audio interview. “It was fabulous.”

But you can’t live in paradise forever, and once Cohen and Ilhen left Hydra to live in New York and Montreal, the relationship sputtered. For as beloved as Cohen was as an artist, Broomfield doesn’t shy away from showing his darkness and how difficult being in love with him must have been.

He had boundless appetites for other women. After they separated, he would write passionate letters to Ilhen professing his love, then become cold to her when she actually showed up. “Poets don’t make great husbands,” as someone says in the film.

Their on-and-off relationship finally ended for good around 1967, and Cohen put his final goodbye in a song, “So Long Marianne.”

As the movie goes on, it focuses more on Cohen’s career, and settles into becoming more of a straightforward documentary, relying on interviews with bandmates and collaborators. But Ilhen’s presence is always felt, as she remained a friend and a muse for much of his life. 

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.