26th Jul2019

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ Review

by Jak-Luke Sharp

Featuring: Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Ron Cornelius, Helle Goldman, Marianne Ihlen, Richard Vick | Directed by Nick Broomfield


Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an eye-opening account of a doomed love affair on an international stage. Directed by documentarian auteur Nick Broomfield, the film follows Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne. A relationship that starts during the 1960s on a small Greek island named Hydra and ends fifty years later, three months and two continents apart at the ripe old ages of 82 and 81 respectively. Broomfield’s documentary is arguably the best work from the director in almost two decades. An extraordinary piece of heartfelt cinema that explores the melancholic intricacy of poets alike. Exploring an unrequited doomed fascination in the opposite sex.

Broomfield’s latest feature is undoubtedly his best work since the late 90s and early 2000s. It is in no way a greater exploration of human character found in the infamous Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, or the profound cultural implications found in Kurt and Courtney, or Biggie and Tupac. Broomfield’s film is a balance of the three previously mentioned documentaries. It takes themes ranging from exploring the human subjects, while also examining the cultural implications of a setting. In this case, the small island of Hydra. It’s a Frankenstein’s-esque monster that comes together and ends up colliding in perfect harmony and beauty. Albeit with only a few imperfections.

It’s somewhat a surprise that Broomfield, who dominated the late 90s and early 2000s documentary circuit, fell off the face of the earth in regard to relevancy in the last two decades. Broomfield’s documentary on another musical icon Whitney Huston in Whitney: Can I Be Me, failed to grasp any gravitas. Especially when compared to Kevin Macdonald’s extraordinary Whitney, released last year. Regardless his latest, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, gets him back on track and captures a spine-tingling aura of passion in a sentimental delivery. Devastating yet uplifting and charming in the same breath. The exploration of a doomed relationship and nasty callous intensity hinges on a complicated watch at times. However, Broomfield adds much more to this straight forward documentary with passion and captivating romantic splendour. An array of additional threads explodes and fill out this feature to a gargantuan methodical exploration ranging from the era, politics and arts of a bygone era. Touching upon and highlighting said threads in an engaging and captivating manner of their influences.

Broomfield throws everything at the wall here hoping it sticks and to its credit, it all pretty much successfully adds to the overall proceedings. Broomfield’s indirect path to the events that unfold is included — revealing that he had a pre-existing history with one of the titular subjects in Marianne Ihlen. This specific narrative travels on a thin line of overindulging on personal events. Sequences that somewhat at times, get in the way of what the audience wants, or needs, to hear and explore. Specifically, when the documentary has a range of content to get through over five decades. The thread adds grand depth regarding personality and a compelling intrigue to the character and complexity of Marianne. Although it dampens Broomfield’s pacing and structure. He is presumably feeling the need to honour his friend and finally fulfil the promise to work together as it is contextually alluded to within the film.

Broomfield goes back to basics with the documentary’s structure and utilises voiceover against pre-existing footage. It mainly comprises of D.A. Pennebaker film shot in the 1960s on tour with Leonard Cohen, while a voiceover relates information in the background. Lasting for about twenty-five minutes, and suddenly, the film shifts to a different delivery. The tone doesn’t disperse, but it’s a harsh and strange decision to implement, cutting back and forth with the inferior and mediocre production design of the interviews taking place against a black background. It is a bland decision to execute and brings all the flavour and vivid intoxication of the relationship and Hyrda, throwing it out the window.

A stunning range of interviewees are present. Adding a significant amount of depth and stories to the relationship of Cohen and Marianne, as well as their separate lives that made them who they are, for good or for bad. Marianne gets the least amount of screen time here, only having Broomfield to add upon her journey, as its Cohen who gets most of the limelight. An ironic angle that also plagued their respective relationship throughout their lives.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is never dull. It is a genuinely poignant and captivating arrangement of love comprised of a jigsaw with missing pieces. It is haunting, beautiful and devastating all in the same breath. An utterly compelling love letter to an icon and his muse that crafted and built everything he stood for. A truly magnificent feature from Broomfield, who not only honours one of his friends and that of a defining relationship that changed the face of music, but he also examines a bygone era of free love, warts and all. With every positive like Leonard and Marianne, there are victims and consequences. Personal or otherwise.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is on limited release across the UK now.


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