Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

Dir. Nick Broomfield

Both Leonard Cohen and myself are agreed on one point; neither of us like the sound of his singing voice. His words, though, are a different matter, and their beauty are superbly captured in the documentary, Marianne and Leonard.

Thankfully, this film is not just a reflection of the love between the two protagonists, but is also a visit into the scabrous, nefarious, workings of the record industry, via unsigned contracts, guns and copious amounts of drugs. All fairly routine stuff, then, but deftly edited to keep returning to the couple at the heart of the affair. Director Nick Broomfield puts this documentary together with the tenderness of a former friend and lover, which he was to Marianne.

Desperate to escape from what he found to be the suffocating atmosphere of his birthplace of Montreal, Cohen travelled to the Greek island of Hydra (pronounced 'Hedra') and came across Marianne Jensen (later Ihlen) and her son, Axel. She soon became his muse and lover.

Whilst the film follows Cohen’s career, via mental institutions and monasteries such as the appropriately titled Mt Baldy Zen Center, Marianne is just as worthy of her screen time, as her nurturing and support acted not just as a key to unlocking Cohen’s potential, but the potential of several others as well.

The early years of writing, drinking and lovemaking slipped into the routine of six months on Hydra and six in America or Europe for Cohen, as his talents were further fanned by artists such as Judy Collins. Slowly, the ratio became 4:8 in favour of America, and the long distance love became frayed, but Cohen could not let go.

A threatening darkness lurks in the background all the while. The seemingly hippy mantra of “Tune in, turn on and drop out” on the sun-kissed island is too good to be true, and a high price seems to have been paid by people who became involved with Leonard. That’s not because of anything he does directly, but the wake he trails behind. How can the producer of his most copied song, 'Hallelujah', be the best producer in the world in the morning, then be out of the music industry in the afternoon?

All the while, as Marianne was having to deal with her son’s illness, Cohen soothed his libidinous intentions. For anyone expecting the film to focus equally on Marianne, this is a disappointment leaving many questions unanswered. It is very much a Cohen biography.

Yet, like a boomerang, Cohen always returned to Marianne. As she lay dying of leukaemia, she asked an old friend to pass a message to Leonard and to bring a camera to her bedside. The response from Leonard came within two hours and is a thing of beauty worthy of the film itself.

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Woman At War

Dir. by Benedikt Erlingsson

If you thought that Iceland is only defined by its volcanoes and geysers, then the glorious landscape photography in Woman at War shows the other side of the raw land, uninhabited except by fauna and sheep.

The opening scenes bear a metaphoric resemblance to that of the American Wild West as the railways were being built, in that they were vulnerable and exposed to attack. The film opens with a single, isolated figure, nothing around her for miles, striding with purpose towards an electricity pylon. In a methodical, meticulous manner of someone who knows exactly what they are doing, she uses a bow to fire an arrow attached to a metal line over the power lines. Within a few minutes, Hella has cut off the power to a major metal smelting plant and so the chase begins.

So Hella is an environmentalist, prepared to take positive actions for the causes she believes in. It’s a cause some people sympathise with, whilst others worry about keeping a job and family safe.

This duality of the argument is neatly played out in a scene when Hella debates the issues with her yoga teacher who is unaware she’s discussing the matter with the so-called “Mountain Woman” at the heart of the disruption.

Yet a complication in Hella’s campaign arises when a long-forgotten dream seems about to be realised: Hella’s four-year-old application to become a mother by adopting a young, orphaned child has been successful. Not in the first flush of youth and with no partner, this is likely to be the only chance for her to experience motherhood. So the external, physical conflict of the eco-warrior verses industry is played against her maternal instincts.

As the net tightens to catch the Mountain Woman and the tension increases, Hella is confronted by stark choices, knowing that any decision will cause personal pain. Needless to say, there are many more twists as Hella tries to manage both situations, yet the choice may not be hers. Both paths are as rugged and bone-jarring as the other, as the hunted becomes the hunter.

Far from being a doom laden affair, there are plenty of lighthearted touches in the sharp script by Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, with the sardonic “Welcome to Iceland” throwaway remark from a police officer to a wrongly arrested immigrant generating laughs in the theatre.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays the conflicted Hella with just the right amount of quiet warmth, grit and determination to keep her character engaged with the audience. Jon Jóhannsson as a farmer, who may or may not be related to Hella, gives his character a gruff exterior an underlying cosiness, whilst Hella’s sister moves from her own comfort zone to make her own personal sacrifices.

Perhaps some people will wait until the English language remake of this film starring Jodie Foster is released, but I’d recommend the original.

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