Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is one of my favorite films of 2019, and it was a pleasure to interview filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me, Kurt & Courtney). A look into the romance and lifelong bond between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the documentary opens in theaters today. Check out the interview below, and my full audio interview with Broomfield is available for CinemAddicts patreon backers.
Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love features previously unseen footage shot by Broomfield and D.A. Pennebaker of that time. During the discussion, Broomfield discussed what made Cohen a unique artist, the generosity of spirit behind Marianne Ihlen, and his own friendship with Ihlen.
Hydra is a big part of your documentary, and that location plays an integral part of Marianne and Leonard’s life together.
Well I went to Hydra when I was 20. You come to the island by obviously by boat, and it’s a very dramatic arrival. You see all of these houses stretching up above you almost like a sort of Roman amphitheatre.
There are no cars there. It’s so steep and the streets are narrow. There’s only mules there. And it has its own sounds really. I guess because there’s no cars. You’re hearing the sounds obviously of the mules, but also there’s a kind of stillness there that you don’t get in other places. There’s a simplicity to life there.
In the early ‘60s there was a big artistic community there. It was very cheap and you could buy houses. I think Leonard Cohen’s house was (purchased for) $1500. And because there are no cars, kids could run around without fear. There is amazing swimming there. It’s just the most beautiful place to be. (It has) an incredible view and the light there is amazing.
Marianne and Leonard met on that island and I think Marianne was there first with her husband Axel Jensen. It was in that moment of splitting up with him that she got to know Leonard who in many ways, I think, was the person who befriended her and looked after her son little Axel. Their relationship was formed then and that was probably around 1960.
From your vantage point, what made Leonard Cohen such a unique artist and writer?
Well I always thought I would go to Hydra and do some work there, but in fact I never really did. A number of my friends went there and very few of them really achieved what they intended to when they went there. I think Leonard had the discipline and the ability to – whatever drugs he was taking, or however many affairs he was havin,g and despite the cheap booze, he was a very, very disciplined artist. He was one of the very few in a sense, survivors from the island who used the excesses of the island – the extreme beauty – to his benefit.
I think a lot of people went to the island and they couldn’t really exist well on the island. Many marriages came to pieces. Many of the families – their relationship broke up. They had affairs with other people on the island. They neglected the children. There was a lot of drug taking – this was the ‘60s. But I think all of that – Leonard was able to use it to his benefit and it kind of made his work and his art stronger. And I think he was one of the few exceptions to that. A lot of people have commented on that so I think it took a particular discipline to survive Hydra.
Can you talk about the section in your film where Marianne visits you in Cardiff. Did her nurturing and encouraging spirit influence your own passion for filmmaking?
I think I met her at the right time and I was very struck by her ability to be accepted wherever she was. I was actually living in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff which was very run down. She could make friends with the kids on the street, and she could make friends with the family. She was interested in everybody (and) completely non-judgemental. And she had that generosity of spirit and interest that people recognized and responded to, which is exactly what you need really to be a documentary filmmaker.
You need to have the ability that people want to communicate with you and open up to you. There is a generosity of spirit that Marianne had which was so unusual and it had a big influence on me.
Could you have made this documentary 15-20 years ago or was this the perfect time to make this film for you?
I think it was. A number of things coalesced (that) enabled me to make it. Two or three years ago I did this film about Whitney (Houston) which was again – that in a sense was a film about a muse – Robyn was her muse and it was a largely archival film which is a very particular way of telling a story.
I felt confident to be able to tell this story in an archival way but also in a personal way. It was more of a challenge to kind of fit my own experiences into it without detracting from the main story, which is obviously about Marianne and Leonard and their love.
So it was a challenge to make it a personal story but not make it irrelevantly personal. I think the challenge was to make it so that was special to me and unique because I had been there and I had met them. I had a personal view of it. But not to do that in a way that took away from their story. That took a lot of reworking to get the balance right. I think we got there in the end.
We see Leonard Cohen as a seeker in this documentary. Do you think Marianne achieved full circle with her life?
I think so. When you see Marianne in the film, on her hospital bed at the very end there is a peace and serenity about her that one only wishes one had the same (final moment) for one self. She seems very at peace You can see how much it means to her being read this letter from Leonard and the kind of gratitude she had that in a way something was complete.
I think that is why that scene, which was shot by Jan Christian Mollestad, is so remarkable. You see the sort of completion in a way of her life and an acceptance of it. You don’t get any sense of fear or anger or . . . you just get a feeling of peace when you see her in that scene. That, to me, is one of the most meaningful moments in the film.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is now playing in theaters.
****This Q&A is available on audio on for our Patreon members, along with an insightful Broomfield comment on what continues to inspire him as a filmmaker.