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'Marianne and Leonard': A Half-Century of Love

By Sandra Ignagni

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, featured in Nick Broomfield's 'Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.' Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, explores the complicated and decades-long love story between legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen, who inspired much of Cohen's best-known work. Cohen met Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra—a colorful community of expat artists, writers and musicians exemplary of 1960s bohemia. At the time, Cohen was a struggling and largely unknown Canadian writer, and Marianne was a single mother with a young son. 

Broomfield, who himself began an intimate friendship with Ihlen on Hydra at age 20, uses rich archival material, including his own footage as well as never-before-seen imagery captured by documentarian DA Pennebaker, to explore the mutual impact Cohen and his muse had on each other. While the film’s subjects are larger-than-life characters who recount everything from acid trips to the perils of open relationships, the core theme of Marianne and Leonard is entirely relatable: the enduring memory of a great big love transformed by circumstance. 

Documentary spoke with Broomfield this week.

DOCUMENTARY: Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love has been described as the most personal and romantic film of your career. For the purpose of orienting our readers, it makes sense to start with your relationship to Marianne, Hydra and the footage that you used to create this film. What are the origins of this documentary and how is it different from other artist-centered films that you've made?

NICK BROOMFIELD: Marianne and Leonard is an interior film. Most of the other films I’ve made tackle exterior subjects: Kurt and Coutney is about freedom of the press, and Biggie and Tupac is about the LAPD. This film is a love story and it makes people think about their own loves and their own lives and their histories. And because I was involved with Marianne at certain points in my life, it was very personal for me too. It is very difficult to tell a story [to which you are intimately connected] and also the filmmaker. 

It was really after Marianne and Leonard had both passed away [that I knew I would make the documentary]. I felt that a very significant period of my life had—well, gone. They were two formative characters in my own development. I wanted to spend more time thinking about and interviewing the people that I had known from that period, but had lost contact with. And I guess their deaths were a reminder of how we all get swept up in our own lives and lose touch with people over the years. It made me reflect on how I ought to give a bit more attention to old friends, rather than getting caught up with everyday activities that are sometimes not very important. 

When a parent or friend dies, there are often conversations that you wished you had, or experiences you wished to have explored before they went. So that was my [initial motivation]. And because I had a lot of photographs and material from that period and because it was such a special moment for me, I wanted to reflect back—and make a film about it all. 

D: One of the things that I appreciate about your treatment of people and places in the film is that you tease out uneasy contradictions. Every person and every place has a shadow side—but these are revealed slowly. Leonard is feminist and a womanizer. Marianne is a muse and also not as nurturing to her son as she could have been. Hydra is a haven for artists and yet breaks families apart. Can you share some insight on how you approached the edit, or the overall structure of the film, to give the place, the time and the characters this complexity?

NB: When I first went to Hydra I was convinced it was paradise—the way to live one’s life! I thought I would spend more time there. I was incredibly influenced by a number of others who were living there at the time and who were raising their kids on the island. I couldn’t see any downside to it at all. One of my best friends from school went to Hydra for two weeks and ended up staying for 14 or so years! 

I soon realized there were many temptations on the island. Unless you were very strong and incredibly disciplined as an artist, it would take a heavy toll on you. It was a very difficult place to survive. I think for the Greeks it is different—they have a very strong culture, a very strong discipline and religion that everyone is a part of. But for the expat community, it is entirely different. Only the most disciplined and determined have really benefited from the island in a creative sense. I think most people just fell by the wayside. That was something I was unaware of at the beginning, but realized over time. Everything tends to be very magnified in such a small community. There were very few places to hide, really, and emotions are much stronger than if you were living in a community such as we do, with different alternatives, and distractions and groups. 

So that was the inherent structure of time, as I experienced it, and also in the film. Initially, I did see Marianne as a loving mother. Although Little Axel was away by himself at school, for me, having been to boarding school myself, I did have questions about that. But I never imagined he would be institutionalized, that he’d go completely off the rails. And I really only learned of it when I was in Oslo and Marianne was deeply worried about him. I think there were other people who were more critical of her handling of Axel. I think that was a very hard thing for Marianne to deal with—at times she blamed his father, but ultimately she felt very responsible for what happened with Axel. It was no doubt the most difficult thing for her to deal with. 

I organized the material in terms of how it presented itself to me. I never felt I was bringing an alien structure to the material. The structure came from simply engaging with the material sufficiently well. There was an awful lot of it in the archives and hundreds of hours of interviews, particularly with Leonard, that we slowly absorbed in the edit room. I’m not one of these people who writes scripts at the beginning of a film. I just start—and sometimes you get to a point where you can’t go any further and have to start again. 

With Marianne and Leonard, I [initially] tried to tell the story without putting myself into it at all, simply because I didn’t want my own story to take attention away from Marianne and Leonard’s story. But in fact, putting my story in gave me the little bit of extra structure I needed to order the story and make jumps across the narrative. In our first few attempts, we tried to structure the film entirely with Marianne’s voice and Leonard’s voice—without me in it—but it was too difficult and it wasn’t working. We had a good six or so weeks where we tried to cut it without having various people weigh in on the story before I started doing my own storytelling as well. 

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

D: On that point, what is your process for writing and weaving narration into your films? So many of us documentarians wish to insert our voices more directly into our films, but it takes a lot of courage and skill to do it well. You do it very well. What advice do you have for others in search of an authentic voice in their films?

NB: With narration, rather than simply convey information, I tried to make the voice personal—by sharing things that Marianne had said to me. In terms of my own story, I tried to tell it in a more associational way. I spoke about images, my recollections on those images, rather than in full sentences. That’s not to say that one doesn’t have to redo it all 10 or 15 times anyways before you get it to work! 

Tell the story in a natural way, that doesn’t sound too labored. The simpler the better, really. And the shorter the better. Once the structure of the film was working, and there was a beginning, middle and end, I went over all of the voiceover to see if I could make it simpler, either by cutting it down, making it more precise, or choosing words that were closer to what I meant. I tightened it all. 

D: At times your film feels like a pleasant stroll through a museum. Sometimes it feels like a museum devoted to an artistic utopia and at other times complicated love. There are many tangents throughout but somehow I don't mind them. In fact, I like them. Was there anything you didn't include in the film that you wanted to, with respect to the interviews or visual material or anything else? 

NB: Recalling different passes of the film, there was some material of Leonard doing stand-up comedy when he was young. It was great material, but we didn’t have the time or space for it. We had to choose between the stand-up and the material where Leonard’s carrying on at a party, where is playing the harmonica with a woman sitting on his lap. We had a choice there and [ultimately used the material that was more consistent with] Leonard’s relationship with women. His standup isn’t really the image people have of Leonard—people associate him with being a very serious person. 

We tried so many bits out! I like to share my films with friends and various people before I lock a film. I get a pretty good sense of what’s working and what’s not working and I make a lot of my final decisions in that process. Showing a film to others is useful, even if they don’t like the film or parts of it aren’t working. Even if they ask strange questions, it is still interesting to try to understand their perceptions, which are often very different from your own. You think you are saying one thing and [your audience is] understanding something entirely different. It is an invaluable process in terms of refining the film. 

D: From the outside, the film seems like a documentarian's dream—a personal connection to one of the world's most beloved artists and access to incredible never-before-seen footage captured by you and another very influential nonfiction filmmaker, DA Pennebaker. Tell me about some challenges you encountered in making this film and how you overcame them. 

NB: When we began we didn’t have the footage of Marianne. It was only when we started editing the film that we realized we had to get it [from DA Pennebaker]. Marianne told me that he had been to Hydra in 1967, but [Pennebaker] couldn’t quite remember and, in any case, there was a reluctance on his part to crawl around in his vault 50 years later and search for something that I don’t think he had ever even looked at! He didn’t even know where the footage would be located—possibly upstate New York? I kept calling to ask if they could look for it. And eventually they found it—it had never been viewed!

There was more material in Norway—of Axel—that had been shot on Hydra in the late 1970s but had never been processed. There was film located in France—of Leonard performing at a festival, which had never been seen by anyone. We didn’t manage to get it because there were so many problems with the people who owned it. Legal problems. And similar problems existed with some footage that was shot in Portugal. We spent a lot of time negotiating—in some cases with people who didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak their language. So there were those kinds of problems!

And then there are people who had collected interviews with Leonard—some of them had interviewed him because they had close relationships with them. [These individuals] lived in different parts of the world; we had to visit and spend a couple of days listening, copying and transcribing their tapes. Hundreds of hours were spent on those kinds of things! 

Persuading Jan Christian Mollestad to let us have the footage of Marianne when he is reading her the letter [from Leonard] at the end was extremely difficult. I had to fly to Norway two or three times and I was unsuccessful. It was only our archivist, who happens to be particularly charming, who was able to work something out with Jan and allow us to use the material. I think Jan was worried. To me, it’s the most beautiful scene—Marianne on her deathbed and you can see how much the letter means to her. She is in a state of grace. There’s a calmness and serenity and beauty that makes the scene so special and wonderful. It embodies the strength of their relationship. But Jan was very concerned—he didn’t want to look as though he was exploiting his friend. So you have a lot of those kinds of issues that you need to deal with. Often, only time can really resolve them—giving someone the time to think through their reservations. When Jan saw the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival, he loved the use of the footage in the film. 

Doing these kinds of films brings these kinds of problems—a very different thing from being on location shooting. 


Sandra Ignagni is a documentary filmmaker, holds a PhD in feminist political economy and works at IDA. Her next film, Highway to Heaven (NFB), will be released in 2019.