“Poets don’t make great husbands”, Aviva Layton, wife of the great Canadian poet Irving Layton tells us in the first few minutes of Marianne & Leonard, the latest work from documentarian Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me). We can trust her advice: Aviva was Layton’s second wife of five.

As a mentor in both literature and love, Irving offered seminal advice to a young poet – another Eastern European Jew in Montreal – named Leonard Cohen. Though Broomfield’s gaze is focused primarily on the fiery relationship between Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, which inspired many of his greatest fights and finest apologies, Marianne & Leonard is by the same token a timely entry into the growing body of work depicting the relationship between artists and their often-forgotten partners. What we usually learn from such tales is that the relationship between the artist and themselves is more urgent: the case of Leonard Cohen is no different.

Marianne and Leonard’s story begins on the remote Greek island of Hydra, today a tourist hotspot but in the early 1960s, when Marianne arrived from Norway and Cohen from Canada, it was an untouched nirvana. “I come from a country covered in snow”, Cohen would tell people he met – like Marianne he was soon warmed by the gorgeous scenery and the gregarious company. Hydra was their own Garden of Eden. But as in that proverbial paradise, things on Hydra weren’t always sweet. Cohen steeped himself in a tight-knit community of similarly young (and similarly wealthy) expats rebelling against their stuffy origins in a radical era. This group included Broomfield himself, who came to know both Cohen and Marianne closely. They thought of themselves as “refugees”, which is admittedly a rather lofty way to characterise the escape from their ugly, upper-middle class metropolitan origins and, well, from monogamy too.

In contrast to the black depths explored by Cohen’s later songs, Hydra was a place of immense flippancy and exploration in every sense of the word. Cocktails of drugs and numerous sexual partners fuelled interactions on the island. We don’t ever hear of what the lot for the natives was. I suppose Broomfield’s point is that it doesn’t really matter because, for the islanders, it didn’t really matter.

Cohen came from an aristocratic family of rich Montreal Jews, his mother an immigrant from Lithuania and his father from Poland. His upbringing was by no means uncomfortable; Broomfield flourishes in telling Cohen’s origin story, which was all walks to school through the snow and lifts to the synagogue from their Black Canadian driver. Ever the nomad, however, Cohen never settled. He was an unlikely candidate for the Sixties cultural revolution, perhaps, but as a writer of books of poetry read not even by his mother, his hippy credentials were solid; soon he was accepted as a native by the foreigners on Hydra and as a lover – though one of multiple, at the beginning – by Marianne.

Marianne & Leonard Review 1
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What Cohen hoped to find on Hydra wasn’t ever really clear, including to himself. But what he found in his love for Marianne was something he didn’t know he needed. “He could make women feel good about themselves, but he couldn’t give himself to them”, we’re told by a member of the ensemble of well-placed figures in their relationship. Cohen’s incapacity to form genuinely intimate relationships with the women who adored him was perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life. “I didn’t have what it took to enjoy my celebrity”, he said in an interview many years later. It’s not clear whether that’s the honest truth – he certainly enjoyed the abundance of acid he could now pay for – but it’s also clear that those around him tended to enjoy his celebrity more than he did.

Broomfield has an answer to why this might be: traveling 5,000 miles wasn’t enough for Leonard to escape the troubles in his own life. His mother Marsha was, according to Aviva Layton, “Mad as a hatter. Oedipally mad.” Long phases of deep depression forced Marsha into mental hospitals on a number of occasions. Though often depressed himself, disappearing sometimes for weeks in order to isolate himself, Cohen only ever entered such institutions as a performer. Recollections of these remarkable performances – Cohen and his band playing his mopey songs to the mopiest of audiences – provide some of Marianne & Leonard’s most memorable passages. Cohen and the patients had a deep bond and a common understanding that compelled him to return many times. In exploring incidents like these, Broomfield’s documentary benefits from the intimacy it clearly has with its subjects. And it’s this which makes it a must-see for anyone interested in Leonard Cohen – and enlightening even to those who aren’t.

The film skims over what’s been well-documented – Broomfield spends less than five minutes talking about “Hallelujah” – and in attempting to cover a relationship that characterises a lifetime, maybe two, this is a wise decision. Twenty-one years after Kurt Cobain doc Kurt & Courtney trialed a new approach to our understanding of celebrity lives, Marianne & Leonard betters it with an unconventional and a uniquely familiar gaze on one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.

All that’s holding it back is an occasional nostalgia for a time and a place few can truly relate to – and fewer still might pine for. And yet, by being so absorbed in the soap opera of the lives at its centre, Marianne & Leonard becomes intimate and unflinching, as thoughtful and caring as its subjects.