Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

R Running Time: 96 mins



  • Leonard Cohen fans have a new documentary about the enigmatic musician to dive into.

  • The idea of a “muse” in this day-and-age is an intriguing one.

  • Attempts to capture a story not all that well-documented about two people’s love and influence on one another.


  • Nick Broomfield can be his own worst enemy sometimes, and here he unintentionally almost sabotages any emotional impact he seeks in trying to tell this story.

  • For a movie called Marianne & Leonard…, Marianne seems like she should be on somewhat equal footing in the stories told and presented.

  • A bit of a rambling wreck of a documentary, this story is intriguing and feels bungled and mishandled by the person sharing the story.


There is an intriguing story which lives somewhere within Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, a new documentary about the late singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and his artistic and creative “muse,” of the 1960s, Marianne Ihlen.

For approximately the opening 45 minutes or so, the film documents the friendship. romantic relationship, and impact each had on the other. Then, much like Cohen’s rise to stardom, Marianne gets relegated to something of an afterthought, as director Nick Broomfield transitions into a very singularly focused film where Cohen takes center stage.

Broomfield is a documentarian who often cannot help but include himself in the story he’s telling. And here, he jumps in right at the beginning, informing us that Marianne was not only his friend, but a one-time lover.

Oh. Alright.

Awkwardly, his narration arrives randomly throughout the film…until he completely abandons the use of it altogether. Adding nothing of substance, Broomfield seems lost narratively in what he’s trying to accomplish. Is this a story of how Ihlen, her son Axel, and Cohen came together in the Greek island of Hydra, c. 1960? Is it showing us how Broomfield learned of the impact Cohen had on his friend? Or, is it using Marianne as a conduit to really just get into how Leonard Cohen became an enigmatic music star who lived a particular public life and a more sybaritic private one?

Not surprisingly, Broomfield is more consumed with that story - the salacious one - than anything having to do with the subject title of his latest movie.

Fitfully creative, with an artisan heart, Cohen’s poetic and original writing eventually blossomed into lyricism and songwriting, initially not seeing himself as a singer or performer. Once Judy Collins encouraged him to perform on stage, he caught a bug he could never shake.

While his unconventional lyrics, singing-style, and evocation truly made him unique - branded a folk singer, by appearances he seemed to be the antithesis of a prototypical “rock star of the 1960s.”

Broomfield, clumsy as he can be, does not shy away from spotlighting Cohen’s eccentricities. He loved to swim naked in hotel pools, dropped acid frequently and often performed high. He was consumed with physical appearance (both his own and those closest to him), wrote song after song about women he had slept with, presented himself publicly as something of a tortured soul, while imbibing in all the extravagance of a rock and roll lifestyle.

We also see that Cohen really did love Ilhen, or at least as much as he could at the time. She is the subject of several songs from his first two records, and is featured on the back cover of his 1969 album “Songs from a Room.” Their affection for one another did transcend decades, even as they would each have relationships with, and marry, others.

Anecdotes are intriguing: Axel ended up in a mental hospital as an adult. Ihlen contemplated suicide knowing of Cohen’s devil-could-care romp around and across North America. Hydra was a community that we learn “tore apart” married couples and was perhaps emotionally detrimental in raising healthy families.

However, for all the detail on Cohen’s life, there is no real balance here. As a significant influence and relationship on Leonard Cohen’s seminal works, Ilhen remains something of a mystery.

We do have this: In the last 10-15 minutes, we learn that Ihlen was “a really nice person, very kind, and she really listened when you talked. Not a lot of people did that.”

Oh. Alright.

Elements of Marianne & Leonard work extremely well. Editor Marc Hoeferlin curates a healthy array of audio, video footage, candid private movies, music, and friends and colleagues’ testimonials. Broomfield seems just more fascinated with the “Leonard” of his particular equation.

Both Ilhen (July) and Cohen (November) would die of leukemia in 2016, approximately 90 days apart from one another. By the end, when Broomfield attempts to refocus back to Ilhen, the moments feel forced and tacked on.

Ilhen’s grace remains apparent throughout, even if “her friend and one-time lover” seems more intrigued with her celebrity boyfriend.

Though it delivers a bittersweet, albeit moving, conclusion in the final minutes, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love promises a tale of two souls who found each other and profoundly impacted one another’s lives. Rather, this is primarily about Leonard, with Marianne the woman he left behind and took for granted, who finds redemption and peace at the end of her life because, as Broomfield shows us, Cohen sent her a note in her final days.

I find it hard to believe that Marianne Ihlen lived her life hoping to get front row tickets to a Cohen concert or a love letter on the eve of her passing. In the world created here, she became whole again because Cohen remembered their love. Sadly, i think Broomfield truly believes that.


Documentary Featuring: Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ilhen (archival footage), Ron Cornelius, Nancy Bacal, Jan Christian Mollestad, Jeffrey Brown, Helle Goldman, Richard Vick, Aviva Layton, Judy Collins, Julie Felix, John Simon, Ron Cornelius, Billy Donovan, George Slater, Judy Scott, John Lissauer, Don Lowe.

Director: Nick Broomfield
Release Date: July 5, 2019
Roadside Attractions