Leonard Cohen: the poet, his muse and his penis

Maryanne Ilhen

Maryanne & Leonard, Words of Love
Documentary film directed by Nick Broomfield
In cinemas

As I emerged from the media preview for this film, I heard another viewer mutter that it was “the most self-indulgent film I’ve ever seen”.

So, beware! This documentary about Leonard Cohen’s personal and artistic life will cut the sheep from the goats of fans and detractors – much like his music and atonal singing have always done.

The film is actually quite beguiling and dream-like, but not without faults. It is supposed to rescue Cohen’s lover, Maryanne Ilhen from obscurity and elevate her influence on his work, hence her name coming before his in the title.

However, despite the best intentions Cohen’s star outshines hers.

There is much about Cohen that could be examined in a documentary, such as his liberal Zionist politics. But this film essentially revolves around Leonard Cohen and his penis.

Based on the affair that the world knows from Cohen’s songs So Long, Marianne and That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, the film’s premise is that Great Artists cannot be measured by the normal standards of social morality. Those who are emotionally entwined with them had better watch out; the life of a Muse is not an easy one.

Film maker Nick Broomfield has drawn together grainy home-movie footage, voice-overs of Ilhen and interviews from the survivors and bystanders of the fast lives she and Cohen lived. He presents not just a doomed romance but a sociological survey of the mores that are the background of Cohen’s creativity.

Cohen and Ilhen met on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. They were part of the artists’ colony centred around Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift. Hydra’s seemingly magical light and cheap living fostered a free-wheeling, retsina-soaked existence of open marriages and joyful bonking.

The long-term cost of Hydra’s bohemian lifestyle, especially the children’s emotional damage, is not glossed over – no punches are pulled.

Even after the colony disintegrated Hydra was a magnet for Cohen and Ilhen for many years.They returned there for short periods together while slowly drawing apart and having other relationships on the side.

Cohen’s sexual proclivities are front and centre in the documentary. As his fame grew, women flocked to him and he is quoted saying that he lived a "blue movie" existence. In all this there is no account of him being cruel or exploitative with women, merely sexually opportunist.

He and Ilhen loved each other at first passionately, then intermittently and finally theoretically as they lived totally separate lives. Ilhen had a least one abortion of a foetus that Cohen fathered. The emotional hardship of holding the poet’s hand was hers, the international fame was his.

He spiralled in and out of her life at the same time as establishing another household in Montreal, complete with two children. Their relationship reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife, the story of a woman having to cope with an emotionally distant man erupting into and out of her life.

While perhaps not being cruel, Cohen was certainly self-centred. But he cloaked it in mystical-sounding verbiage and to many it appears as if he were a saviour.

Despite all the heartache, Cohen and Ilhen maintained a bond. Ilhen asked a friend to film her on her deathbed, which is intriguing in itself, and so we can see her reaction as Cohen’s very tender last message is read to her.

Something I found surprising in the film was the extent that Cohen’s artistic output was associated with drugs. It was far more connected to drugs that it was to Ilhen. He was an early adopter of LSD and apparently soaked himself in it for many years.

He was no modern micro-doser; he had a chemist friend concoct a super-strength batch of acid the smallest particle of which would trip out the taker for 14 hours. Cohen took it daily for weeks at a time.

It is quite possible that Cohen, a famous depressive, was self-medicating with drugs and sex.

Another surprising thing was that Cohen, while touring, would often fit in free concerts at mental hospitals. He demonstrated a compassion and understanding for people experiencing mental illness.

In Cohen’s last recording, taped by his son in the final days of his life, he intones about his artistic career with his characteristic dark humour: “I was always working steady, but I never called it art, I got my shit together, meeting Christ and reading Marx.”

There is precious little Christ in this movie, though there is some zen, and absolutely no Marx. Perhaps with a bit more critical thinking the trope of The Great Artist and His Muse would have been examined more closely.

In the end the most basic question is not answered: was Leonard Cohen the Messiah or just a very naughty boy?

The official film trailer can be seen on You Tube.

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