In 1960, Leonard Cohen went to the Greek island of Hydra. He’d just had some poems published, and was getting ready to write the novel “Beautiful Losers”. It would be quite a few years before he was to become a singer, and the writer of some of the most profound songs in pop history.
On Hydra, he met the Norwegian single mother Marianne Ihlen. As they were living in an artistic community, she also called herself an artist saying something like “I live. Life is art”. The film is very unclear about what it was that Marianne actually did, apart from her job as Cohen’s Muse.
Now the concept of a Muse is very loaded, often implying a gender-based division of labour, where the man creates Great Art, while the woman’s job is to look pretty, and do the shopping. Indeed this seems to be a fair description of Marianne’s life on Hydra.
Various talking heads who were around at the time are rolled on to reiterate the ideas that Marianne was a Muse, and that Leonard was a tortured artist, which sometimes is used as a moral Get Out of Jail Free card. This is an intrinsic problem with this sort of documentary – if you largely interview people who were good mates with someone who has recently died, you’re unlikely to get the full tale of how he was a bit of a bastard really.
Nonetheless, the film does contain all sorts of interesting bits – from the use of female voices instead of backing instruments on Songs of Leonard Cohen, to cautionary tales of hippy life in the sixties. Yet just as it looks like we’re about to hear something interesting, it veers away and moves on to something else.
Let’s take the artists community on Hydra, who are described as all being poor, but it takes a special sort of privilege to up sticks and move to Greece. You don’t get the impression that they talk to the locals much, except when they’re feeding the local donkeys acid. And then you see an interview with one of the family, where the kids, who choose to speak Greek with each other, seem to have integrated much better than their wastrel parents.
The impact of the hippy sense of entitlement is mentioned a few times in passing, as the kids of pretty much all the Hydra artists end up with mental health or addiction problems with a relatively high rate of suicide. We are told that Marianne’s son Axel spent most of his adulthood in mental institutions, but it would have been nice to know more.
Its hard to be certain but I have a feeling that the film lacks a certain self-awareness. A (female) friend of Cohen’s explains how he was the world’s greatest feminist, yet we hear countless tales of his affairs and worse. Marianne mentions, again in passing, that she had an abortion for Leonard’s sake. When his career as a singer starts to take off, Marianne and Axel are summoned first to Montreal, then to New York. Muses rarely get a say in such transactions.
Not able to live like this, Marianne eventually moves back to Hydra where Leonard visits – albeit for increasingly small periods of time. Ultimately she moves back to Oslo, and gets a job as a secretary. We are still only about half way through the film.
Most of the second half is a potted and highly unstructured biography of Cohen’s musical career. We spring between different records without any real sense of what they have to do with each other. We also hear a load of anecdotes, some of which are interesting, like how the producer of Hallelujah didn’t get any royalties because he was fired before he could sign the contract.
Other anecdotes are less engaging. It is a general rule that when someone tells you about the drugs they’ve taken, the story is both tediously self-involved, and more concerned with the drugs themselves rather than any of the interesting encounters experienced while under the influence. Better tell these stories to your mates and don’t bother us with them.
What unites pretty much all the anecdotes though, is that they do very little to take the plot forward, and that Marianne is by now excluded from the story. The result is a peculiar mixture of very engaging bits followed by a feeling that you wished they could invent a fast forward device to use in the cinema.
At the end Leonard and Marianne are reunited on Marianne’s deathbed, after Leonard writes a letter that was apparently reproduced in the international press. It seems that the film is using this to show that he always really loved her. To me it is just another example of his absolute talent of using charming words to distract people (particularly women) from his selfish actions.
I don’t want to be overly critical of a film that I actually quite liked, but one last moan. We know to expect that a Nick Broomfield film will contain as much of Nick Broomfield as is humanly possible, but this one hits paydirt. Apparently Broomfield also lived on Hydra in the 1960s and he proudly tells us he was one of Marianne’s lovers. On more than one occasion, we are shown a photo of Broomfield taken by Marianne.
We don’t want to know, Nick. If you concentrated a little less on making yourself the story, maybe the film would have been a little less disjointed. Its still ok, but it should have been much better.