Film of the week: How Love Island sparked Leonard Cohen's meteoric rise
Nick Broomfield’s absorbing documentary charts a romance that marked the singer for life, writes Paul Whitington
In the spring of 1960, Leonard Cohen arrived on the idyllic, sleepy Greek island of Hydra. A wandering writer, he had left his native Montreal and travelled to London to finish his first novel, but found the lowering skies of the English capital oppressive, and instinctively felt a stint in the shimmering Aegean would lift his mood.
It certainly did, especially after he ran into Marianne Ihlen, a beautiful and slightly lost Norwegian woman whose recent separation from a temperamental husband had left her alone with a baby son, Axel.
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Ihlen would become Cohen's 'muse' (that outmoded, subtly objectifying phrase is used early and often in this documentary), helping him complete two novels and inspiring some of his greatest songs. But as Nick Broomfield's absorbing, sometimes meandering film points out, their sun-kissed, painfully intense romance would haunt both parties for the rest of their lives.
Marianne & Leonard is no speculative outsider's view because Broomfield had his own experiences on Hydra, and also became involved with Ihlen when he went to the Greek island in the late 60s. By then, Cohen was famous and had left the place - and the person - that had played such key roles in his success.
When Cohen first arrived on Hydra, it already boasted a thriving community of free-living, bohemian expatriate artists, hippies avant la lettre who drank wine, took drugs and slept with each other's spouses. Cohen, always the ladies' man, fitted right in, but while others were too busy boozing and flirting to create anything of substance, the quiet-spoken Canadian had the discipline to both enjoy himself and work.
He bought a small house, Ihlen moved in with him, and while he wrote, she tended to his needs, bringing him food and water while he worked feverishly on his second novel, Beautiful Losers, popping acid to keep himself going.
Marianne, a soulful, generous, disarmingly honest woman, would later wonder why she was the only ex-pat on Hydra who didn't seem to be an artist, but she certainly facilitated Cohen's transition from tortured novelist to popster troubadour.
After he finished Beautiful Losers, Cohen had a breakdown and, as he recovered, began playing Ihlen his songs. She might not have recognised herself in songs like Bird On The Wire and So Long, Marianne, but she did recognise her partner's extraordinary lyrical talent, and it was with her blessing that he left for New York to establish himself as a songwriter. His friend Judy Collins was a huge help, recording his song Suzanne and turning it into a hit. She then badgered him into joining her onstage, and though he started crying during his first public performance, he soon got the hang of it. A major record deal with Columbia followed and by the late 60s, Cohen was a superstar.
He hoped Ihlen would come along for the ride, but when she followed Cohen to New York, she was all at sea. Cohen was in the Chelsea Hotel and mixed up with Janis Joplin and others. Marianne was miserable, got mugged on Clinton Street, and soon disappeared back to the Aegean. They separated, but the pair remained close, corresponding by letter.
- Read More: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review - Nick Broomfield’s fine film charts a Greek island romance that would mark the singer for life
Broomfield's film has an unhurried, digressive style that seems oddly appropriate to its dreamy, quasi-mythical story. But he sentimentalises neither Cohen nor Ihlen, and makes it clear that there was a downside to Hydra's carefree hedonism: a lot of the children raised there became troubled adults, and Ihlen's son Axel would end up in mental institutions. As Cohen himself once said, "when you've lived on Hydra, you can't live anywhere else, including Hydra".
There are many amusing talking heads in this documentary, friends and colleagues from Hydra, New York and Montreal, as well as Cohen himself, wryly reflecting on his endless enthusiasm for women, which he admits was "beyond what was reasonable". Ihlen would eventually be supplanted by Suzanne Elrod, a tough nut who turned up on Hydra and kicked Marianne out.
Elrod bore him two children, but the pair split acrimoniously in the late 70s and Cohen would later endure bankruptcy and an austere stint in a Buddhist monastery before brilliantly reinventing himself as a globetrotting stadium-filler. He's impossible to dislike, but Broomfield's fine film gives Ihlen equal billing, and suggests that without her, we might not have got to hear all of Cohen's wonderful songs.
Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love (15A, 98mins) - 4 stars
Films coming soon...
Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba); The Angry Birds Movie 2 (Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Mann, Bill Hader, Danny McBride); Photograph (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra); Only You (Josh O'Connor).
At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases
Horrible Histories (PG, 92mins) - 3 stars
Making history 'fun' sounds like a ghastly endeavour, but since 2009 the BBC's Horrible Histories TV series has been doing just that, using jokey dramatisations to draw kids into exploring the mysteries of the past. There's more than a touch of Carry On Cleo to this movie spin-off set in Britain during the Roman emperor Nero's rule. When a skinny legionnaire arrives on these rainy isles, he's captured by Celts and goes native. An amusing cast includes Rupert Graves, Lee Mack, Nick Frost and Kim Cattrall, giving it socks as Nero's mother, and Derek Jacobi hammily reprises the role of Claudius. It's broad stuff, but thoroughly winning.
The Chambermaid (No cert, IFI, 102mins) - 3 stars
This assured feature début from Mexican actor Lila Aviles explores the human cost of luxury living. Eva (the wonderfully subtle Gabriela Cartol) is a maid at a shimmering and vaguely antiseptic five-star Mexico City hotel. Her work is almost mesmerising in its banality, and the guests treat her as though she's a slave, or a chair, behaving appallingly because the room rates give them the right. Eva's only 24 and is taking an adult education class, but for all her doggedness and ambition, you feel her hard life is never going to get any easier. It's a beautiful, melancholy film, and makes you begin to wonder if Karl Marx had a point.
- Read More: The Chambermaid review: Assured and haunting feature debut explores the human cost of luxury living