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MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE: 3 ½ STARS. “love story that resonated for decades.”

The name Marianne Ihlen may not ring a bell on its own but mention Leonard Cohen in the same sentence and melancholic strains of one of the poet’s biggest hits floods the ears. She inspired two of his most famous songs, “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire” and was the woman who “held on to me like I was a crucifix as we went kneeling through the dark.” A new documentary, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” paints a more complete picture of a person often thought of as Cohen’s muse.

Their story begins on Hydra in 1960, a place where artists could survive on little money. Ihlen, fresh off a divorce from mercurial writer Axel Jensen and raising a child on the Greek isle when she met Cohen, a down-on-his-heels poet looking for inspiration. They fell in love, did drugs and searched for inspiration. Cohen wrote feverishly, penning his novel “Beautiful Losers” there. Today the book is considered a classic but at the time it was met with derision– Robert Fulford it, “the most revolting book ever written in Canada”—and failed at bookstores.

To make money Cohen and Ihlen returned to North America to begin his career as a songwriter. Folk singer Judy Collins, who recorded his song “Suzanne” a full year before he released his own version and convinced him to sing on stage. Cohen’s sophistication and romantic balladry caught on and soon he was a star, much to Ihlen’s disdain. Feeling left behind she wrote a letter to Collins, rebuking the singer for covering Leonard’s songs and “ruining her life.”

When they parted. After seven years, Cohen was on his way to becoming a superstar, Ihlen returned to a more normal life, largely fading from public view. Using archival footage—home movies shot on Hydra, news footage and photography coupled with new interviews— director Nick Broomfield stresses the importance of Ihlen in Cohen’s life. Broomfeild himself is an Ihlen disciple. They met on Hydra and she helped him find his vocation as a documentary filmmaker. He returns the favour with a loving portrait of a woman who served as an almost mythical figure, a muse. Overshadowed by the artists she inspired she is nonetheless well served by the documentary which gives dimension to a person best known as a song lyric.

Ihlen passed away in Oslo in July, 2016. At the end of her life Cohen sent a message, read to her bedside and seen in the film. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine,” it reads in part. “Endless love, see you down the road.” Four months later he too was gone, joined in death as he had been in life with his muse. “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is a sensitive and intimate portrayal of their time together, a love story that only spanned a handful of years but resonated for decades.

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