When beloved Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen met young Norwegian mother Marianne Ihlen on the breathtaking Greek Island of Hydra in 1960, their attraction was instantaneous.
Hydra was infamous for its bohemian residents wholeheartedly embracing the era’s free-love spirit.
Cohen was a struggling writer plugging away at novels The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers, published in 1963 and 1966 to decidedly mixed reviews.
Marianne had been abandoned by novelist husband Axel Ihlen, left to care for their young son.
She became Cohen’s most famous muse.
Their seven-year, on-off romance and later their heartsore estrangement inspired his songs So Long, Marianne from debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, plus Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye and Bird on the Wire.
The back sleeve of his 1969 album Songs from a Room has a photo of Marianne wrapped in a white towel, sitting at Cohen’s typewriter.
Moving On, from Cohen’s posthumous 2019 album Thanks for the Dance, is also a tribute to her.
Some of that fraught creative magic is what Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, a new documentary by Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me, Kurt & Courtney) tries to capture.
Broomfield often inserts himself into his films and this is his most personal work yet.
He met Ihlen on Hydra in 1968, and they briefly became lovers during one of Cohen’s disappearing acts as the singer’s star rapidly rose in New York.
“There was a loneliness about her, but she was still very obviously intoxicated with Leonard,” Broomfield tells The New Daily.
“I think he always retained a particular place in her heart.”
A naïve young man fresh from boarding school in England, Broomfield was transfixed by the beauty of Hydra and Ihlen.
“It seemed like boundless possibilities, sexually and otherwise,” he says.
“It was very intoxicating and I always thought I would go back and live there. And I never did it.”
When they both died in 2016 – Cohen at age 82, Marianne at 81 – “it felt like that piece of history was gone”.
Broomfield recalls revisiting Ihlen much later in life in the tiny flat in Norway’s Oslo where she spent her last years.
Describing it as something of a shrine to Cohen, the documentary contains startlingly intimate footage of Ihlen on her deathbed.
A final letter from Cohen is read out to her, including the line, “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
He died four months later.
“I guess passion is about pain and pleasure, and there was a lot of both in their relationship,” Broomfield says.
“I think it kept them both very alive.”
Ihlen was a great inspiration to Broomfield too, encouraging him to abandon his stuffy barrister training in London and pursue his real passion for filmmaking.
“At that time, you had to go shooting and fishing at the weekend to have any success, and my heart wasn’t really in it,” he says of the law.
“It was very much her encouragement, because to take that initial leap is difficult. You need someone supporting you and believing yes. Yes is what she did for people.”
Marianne’s selflessness drove Cohen’s success too, Broomfield suggests.
“He was a writer and used to play union songs on his guitar, but he didn’t play his own material. She was the one who encouraged him to combine the two things.
“She was an amazing listener and she really liked to work out what made people tick.”
The idea of a woman as muse can be seen as derogatory, “A bit 18th century in a way,” Broomfield says, adding, “Obviously now everything is to do with how much money it’s worth, but of course the ’60s were a very different period.”
Broomfield says Ihlen could have made a fortune as a manager or record producer.
“There’s nothing [Columbia Records co-president] Rick Rubin did that she couldn’t, but the difference is she wasn’t charging 25 per cent. Had she done that, would she have been living in a Beverly Hills mansion?
“She would definitely be getting more respect than having done it for free for the people she loved. But yeah, we live in a f—-d-up time.”
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is in cinemas now