I spent yesterday afternoon is a small movie theatre in Soho with a group of mostly elderly couples. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that most of the people assembled to watch this particular film were couples, and definitely mostly in their late 60s and 70s I would guess. We were all there to see the only showing of Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Nick Broomfields documentary about the love affair between singer/songwriter/poet, Leonard Cohen and the Norwegian woman with whom he conducted an eight year romance, and who by all accounts was his muse.
It’s a lovely film, slightly sentimental at times, but also characterized by some harsh examinations of the actions of both parties, and the times in which they lived. I got the feeling that for many people the film was going to be about romance and the enduring power of that kind of love. The premise from the documentary came from a note that Cohen wrote to Marianne Ihlen as she lay dying. Although their love affair had ended many years before, Cohen wrote incredibly loving and tender words to her, and it was that note that prompted the exploration of their relationship in this film. Made up of archive footage, home videos and interviews, the film charts their relationship from its beginnings to its demise, or at least to the end of its romance cycle.
They met on an idyllic Greek island in the late 60s, when it was possible to live there on a $1000 a year! Ihlen, was a searcher and seeker, looking for something unidentifiable. Fueled by the liberations of the 60s counterculture, both sexual and psychedelic, Ihlen had a number of interchangeable lovers when she met Cohen. Their relationship was always somewhat unorthodox, it was the times as well as the dynamics and temperaments of both the lovers. Cohen was consuming massive amounts of speed and LSD, and working on what would be his last book, Beautiful Losers. He had yet to make a move towards making music as a career. He was also, as perhaps he remained his whole life, a lover of women in general, and it was the cultural moment when perhaps mutuality between the sexes and sexual openness were a possibility, and Cohen took full opportunity of that time.
They set up home together, along with Ihlen’s son, and lived a spartan but happy existence on the island. But it was not to last. They were together as a couple for eight years, but much of the time was spent apart, particularly when Cohen’s musical career took off. At first it was six months on and six months off and it gradually dwindled down to a few days here or there and then to nothing. At least, nothing on the traditional romance front, but as the film shows, the depth of their love and connection outlived all the conventions that society places on things like love, sex and romance.
If you were watching this film hoping to see some affirmation of the power of love, you might well find that, as an unexpected depth, but what you wouldn’t find is any sense that this was an easy relationship between them and the Ihlen’s pain over the loss of Cohen’s closeness and their life together is heart-breaking. Whatever love is here, is complex and damaging, perhaps to Ihlen most of all, who ultimately, despite her background of affairs and open relationships.
Cohen comes across as complex as one might imagine the man to be. he is caught in a moment of ascendancy in the film, and his immersion into the world of sex and drugs is both comical and insightful. And in this day and age, difficult to place anywhere but in a sorry place.
As I watched the film, and even more so after, when I was feeling a little melancholic, in that post movie-watching way, I thought about love, sex, relationships and friendship and was reminded of something I read recently the Tumblr page of poet Trisha Low on relationship anarchy.
“it can loosely be understood as a style of interpersonal relationships that doesn’t prioritize or hierarchialize relationships with others based on what takes place within them, at least a priori. In short, there’s a uniqueness to each relationship which makes their translation between relationships difficult to gather––a kind of ineffability that gets lost or violated in the transition. So, for example, you may relate with someone in a way that tends to be more like friendship: perhaps you sometimes get together for coffee, talk about things that are going on with your life, go for walks, make dinner together sometimes, etc––but, sometimes you mess around, not too often, but sometimes. Then, you may have another relationship that is a bit more weighty––for one reason or another it’s got a trajectory that shoots out into the future, a place where you may see yourself growing vegetables and living together, sharing projects, intertwining intricately. And then, just to have more than two examples, you may have a friend that is more traditionally just a friend: you watch hockey together, talk about books you’ve been reading, get a drink, whatever. There’s a complex calculus taking place in all of these relationships, a shifting definition, murky waters, not only interrelationship but intrarelationship, as well––just because you fucked around last time doesn’t mean it’ll definitely happen this time, just because you didn’t hold one another last time doesn’t mean you won’t this time, etc.
The point being is that, out of the gate, you can’t prioritize based on the activities that go on within the relationship––the only thing that can be said is that the relationships differ. Now, in lived experience, you may want to spend more time with the person who you see yourself growing vegetables with (this is one of the miserable aporias of existence: love seems infinite, but time isn’t…) but this isn’t because you have sex or because you don’t have sex, it isn’t because they’re “more than a friend” or whatever coarse terminology is hoisted upon it––it’s because that’s the way that relationship goes, its particular mode––you require more time with them for one reason or another: they ignite you, they unravel you beautifully, they support you unflinchingly, they catalyze splendid complexity and nuance.”
It occurred to me that there were elements of this kind of anarchy in the relationship between these two lovers. There were times when their lives were intensely intertwined, but that changed over time, what didn’t change was the depth of their love and care for each other. As each of them approached the end of their lives, that love connection was a gift to them both. As with many things in life, social mores and accepted conventions sometimes place binary constraints on emotions and essentially make things either/or when there actually might be other possibilities. I’m not necessarily advocating relationship anarchy, but I’m not rejecting it either. It seems that is would take serious mutuality, self-awareness, and an almost entirely new understanding and attitude towards love and sex.
Their love endured many forms, thats the lesson I took away from the documentary. On Hydra, that beautiful Greek island, Cohen wrote a book that was a failure and essentially ended his literary career when published, it was called, Beautiful Losers. It might have been an apt title for this documentary, for surely the most beautiful losing game is love.