Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love ★★½

Leonard Cohen was a lot of things in his life, but most of all he was a searcher. And like all true searchers, he always needed something to seek — something that he had, and loved, and let slip through his open fingers once it was familiar enough that he knew he could feel it on his skin forever. For Cohen, that something was a someone, and that someone was Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian single mother who the late musician and writer met on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s.

Along with Ihlen’s young son, Axle, they lived together in a daydream; she thought of them as a makeshift family, but he thought of her as his muse. And muses, like the inspiration they provide, are not made to be kept, so much as lost and found and lost again. The first and most famous song that Cohen ever wrote about Ihlen is called “So Long, Marianne,” and its lyrics have always sounded like the tortured poetry of a man who’s trying to escape the only joy he’s ever known (“I’m standing on a ledge/and your fine spider web/is fastening my ankle to a stone”).

And yet somehow, despite relegating Ihlen to the background, Nick Broomfield’s sporadically tender new documentary manages to invert that dynamic, and make it seem as though Cohen were the one who set the trap; that the muse is always at the mercy of the master song.

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