Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love romanticises a sexist trope

Enough of the idealising – it's time we acknowledge the sexism at the heart of the myth of the male "genius".

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Poets do not make good husbands. You can’t own them. You can’t even own a bit of them”, says Aviva Layton in Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love. She would know: the poet Irving Layton was her partner for more than 20 years, until he had an affair with another woman and she left him in the late 1970s.

This sun-drenched film offers a sentimental look at the relationship of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, who first met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. It explores how, having spent much of the Sixties together, Ihlen inspired Cohen’s songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire”: he the ever-complex artist, she the passive muse. It ends with the much-reported letter he wrote to her decades later, as she lay on her deathbed: “I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more.” Cohen died less than four months after Ihlen in 2016, the neat timing of which is read as a sign of the serendipity of their relationship: despite not remaining together as a couple, Ihlen and Cohen were bound for life.

The tale, then, seems to run full circle. The story’s romanticism is helped along by the idealised setting of Hydra, with its elegant stone mansions and the glittering waters of the Argo-Saronic Gulf. Helle Goldman, who grew up on Hydra and is the translator of Ihlen’s biography, describes the island as “a place of limitless possibility”, where the air is “silky”.

The contributors to Broomfield’s film, who talk to camera in a typical documentary mode, are seen celebrating a wonderful romance between Ihlen and Cohen. But their anecdotes and character studies suggest this was not a relationship based on respect and equality. Even director Nick Broomfield’s connection to this story relies upon his idea of Ihlen as a muse – he had a short-lived relationship with her in England in the years following her time on Hydra. No matter what justice Broomfield is attempting to do to Ihlen’s memory, he falls into the same trap as Cohen, rendering Ihlen into nothing more than the play-thing of a male artist (be they a poet or a filmmaker).

In their early years together, Cohen had not yet followed his calling as a songwriter. He was a poet, fuelled by huge amounts of drugs and inspired by Ihlen’s beauty. “I was his Greek muse who sat at his feet. He was the creative one,” she says, admitting how she worshipped Cohen, whose Beautiful Losers – reviewed on publication in 1966 as “verbal masturbation” – she says she “didn’t understand.”

“A sandwich would be brought to me,” we hear Cohen say a few moments later, as if Ihlen was his unnamed housemaid, somehow passive in her active care of Cohen. She was the homemaker, the server, Cohen’s tender. The diversity of the footage of Cohen – from Hydra to Montreal, on buses and in hotels and concert venues, always with new people – contrasts deftly with that of Ihlen, who we rarely see outside a domestic or social setting on Hydra. He was the genius with the vibrant professional life; she stayed at home.

Despite this troubling dynamic, the folk musician Julie Felix, a friend of Cohen’s and early supporter of his music, calls him a “great feminist”. Cohen himself puts it another way. “I was obsessed with gaining women’s favours,” he says. “It became the most important thing in my life.” Even when he concedes to his addiction to women, the film continues to paint him as a romantic, a ladies’ man who couldn’t help but manipulate women to his own advantage. With a cheeky grin, Billy Donovan, Cohen’s road manager, says “He had a woman all the time”, and he looks pretty pleased with himself when he admits working with Cohen didn’t do him much harm with the ladies, either.

Broomfield includes a clip of Cohen introducing “So Long, Marianne” on stage. He makes a joke of how he first lived with Ihlen on Hydra for six months of the year, spending the other six months in his home city of Montreal. Then, as he spent more time on tour, distracted by other women, it was four months a year, then two, then just a handful of weeks. “I hope she’s here. Marianne. I hope she’s here”, he says, despite the fact that he has just dismissed Ihlen as “a girl I used to live with”. Here, Cohen seems the typical manipulator. No matter how often he comes and goes, disposing of her each time, he expects her to be waiting for him.

For a time, Ihlen gave up a lot to follow Cohen. She even moved from Hydra to New York to be with him, though by then he was sleeping with Janis Joplin and writing about their nights together on the crude “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”. When Suzanne Elrod, with Cohen’s baby in tow, came to Hydra in 1972, she knocked on the door of Ihlen’s house, asking when she would be moving out. Ihlen’s response is painful to listen to: “I wanted to put him in a cage, lock him up and throw away the key,” she says. “All the girls were panting for him. It hurt me so much. It destroyed me.”

Ihlen comes out of the film as the more distinguished party – Goldman describes her as “generous” and “kind”, someone who really listened, a rare trait in a world of people who simply wait their turn to speak. Yet it is she, not Cohen, who carried the greater trauma. The creative experiment that saw bohemian writers flock to Hydra became the scene from which Cohen launched a multi-million-dollar songwriting career. Meanwhile, Ihlen’s son from her first marriage, Axel, who was just a baby when Ihlen met Cohen, suffered the effects of their drug-riddled, unstable life. He has spent much of his incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. This is briefly explored in the film, alongside the story of writers George Johnston and Charmian Cliff and their young children, who also lived on Hydra and whose lives were soon plagued by suicide and early drug-related deaths. But the horror of the troubled environment of this supposed artists’ haven is largely cast aside to make room for the idealised love story Broomfield wants to tell.

The film ends with genuinely moving footage of Ihlen sitting in the front row of a 2013 Cohen concert in Oslo. Of course, he gave her the tickets, wanting to see her front and centre, ever the observer to his success. As she sings along, Ihlen’s admiration of Cohen is evident, her love for him life-long, but there is something unsettling about the way in which he forever kept her tethered to him, something awful in how loving him caused her so much pain. She had married a new man in 1979, and moved back to Oslo, but Cohen ensured she could not forget him.

Yet the film remains a portrait of romanticised idyll. “Oh, this is just lovely,” begins the Times’ review. “I wept like a child by the end.” In the showing I attended, where the cinema was full mostly of people of the appropriate age and dress sense to have been dedicated Cohen fans in the Sixties and Seventies, many of those around me cried at the film’s resolution, as though it was the most beautiful love story they had ever seen.

But I felt uncomfortable at yet another overly romanticised portrait of a flawed but admired male artist, one who is bolstered by a loving, talented woman, but drops her whenever he chooses. It’s time we acknowledged the sexism at the heart of these myths of male genius and their beautiful muses. Perhaps poets don’t make good husbands, but narratives that reduce complex women to little more than a creative prompt don’t make for good love stories, either.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.