In 1967, enigmatic musical stylist Leonard Cohen penned "So Long, Marianne," one of the most beautiful songs in a musical age defined more by lyrics than melody:
"Well you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us."
"Marianne" was Marianne Ihlen, who, along with her newborn, had been abandoned on a Greek island a few years before meeting Cohen. They waltzed a passionate but often-vexing dance for decades until Cohen's fame, depression and excesses of the flesh became too much of a wedge between the two. Nearly 50 years later, as Ihlen clung to life, losing her battle with leukemia, Cohen wrote to his "Dearest Marianne" one final time:
"I'm just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.
I've never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don't have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude."
Those bookends hold up a rather fine (but quite niche) documentary, another feature in the river of non-fiction films streaming into art house cinemas this summer. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love has garnered some swell critical notices—The New York Times says it's "remarkable," and Rolling Stone calls it "unmissable"—it is directed by Nick Broomfield, a documentarian who, second only to Michael Moore, is the king of interjecting himself into his films (previous subjects have included Sarah Palin and Kurt Cobain). But in Marianne & Leonard, Broomfield actually had some skin in the game.
"I was a rather lost 20-year-old looking for adventure and excitement when I visited the island of Hydra in Greece," said Broomfield, who first set eyes on Ihlen in 1969. "I had the good fortune to meet Marianne, the lover of Leonard Cohen, whom amongst other things, convinced me to make my first film."
By the late 1960s, when a young Broomfield and Ihlen first met, she had already had a child, been divorced, fallen in love with Cohen, moved with him to Oslo, Norway, then to Cohen's native Montreal, Canada, but then she retreated to Greece, sans Cohen. A big part of the problem was that Ihlen saw their coupling as a true partnership, while Cohen saw her first and last as his muse. Take, for example, the all-too-obvious clue emerging from his song, "So Long, Marianne":
"I'm standing on a ledge
And your fine spider web
Is fastening my ankle to a stone."
Ihlen's "spider web" undoubtedly spun more than around Cohen's ankles. In fact, her Grecian isle became a rather infamous nest of expat artists, writers and musicians, who all make cameos in Broomfield's film, waxing poetic about what they considered to be a more innocent time. Indeed, Cohen was one of those expats when he first met Ihlen, but soon enough he was a world-class poet, songwriter and performer, and "a man every woman wanted to have." Broomfield is quick to add, "He could make women feel good about themselves, but he couldn't give himself to them, because he couldn't give himself away."
'I threw myself into a blue movie," we hear Cohen later explain. "But we know that blue movies are not romantic."
Indeed, there are a few too many "Hmm's" and not enough truly intriguing moments in Marianne & Leonard. Interesting? You bet. Enlightening? Rather. Fascinating? Barely.
If you're a big fan of rock/folk's greatest era when the singer/songwriters were the kings and queens of the world, you're likely to enjoy this film. And if you're enamored with the equivocal Cohen in particular, you'll no doubt see the film soon after it opens in Boise on Friday, Aug. 2. Otherwise, quite frankly, the film is a push, and a bit of a struggle to warrant the full price of admission.