In the Spring of 1960, Leonard Cohen arrived on the idyllic, sleepy Greek island of Hydra. A wandering and not conspicuously successful 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.
Marianne 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 sunkissed, painfully intense romance would haunt both parties for the rest of their lives.
Marianne & Leonard is no speculative, disinterested outsider’s view, because Nick Broomfield had his own experiences on Hydra, and also become romantically involved with Marianne when he went to the Greek Island in the late 1960s. By then Leonard 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. Leonard, 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, Marianne 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 and encouraged Cohen’s transition from tortured novelist to popster troubadour.
After he finished Beautiful Losers, Leonard had a breakdown, and as he recovered began playing Marianne his songs. She might not have recognised herself in songs like Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Bird on a 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 1960s Cohen was a superstar.
He hoped Marianne would come along for the ride, but when she followed Leonard to New York, she was all at sea. Cohen was by then ensconced 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, most poignantly when Marianne was on her deathbed.
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Broomfield’s film has an unhurried, digressive style that seems oddly appropriate to its dreamy, quasi-mythical story. But he sentimentalises neither Leonard nor Susanne, 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 Susanne’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”.
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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”. Marianne would eventually be supplanted by Suzanne Elrod, a Quebecoise tough nut who turned up on Hydra and browbeat Marianne into moving out.
Elrod bore him two children, but the pair split acrimoniously in the late 1970s, 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 Nick Broomfield’s fine film gives Marianne Ihlen equal billing, and suggests that if not for her, we might not have got to hear all of Leonard’s wonderful songs.