There is a scene in Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, Marianne and Leonard—chronicling the artist-muse relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ilhen—where Ilhen floats on her back in the Greek sea, straw-colored hair and languid body illuminated by the sun, as Cohen’s voiceover recites a poem in the background. She appears inseparable from the light in the shot, as though if she left the frame she would take its warmth with her. This is the image of a muse: an unspeaking woman’s beauty, narrated by a great male artist’s voice. It is his project to subsume himself in her vitality, and to derive art from that.
Broomfield presents Ilhen as a sort of eternal muse. Her first husband, a violent man, was a writer. Next she is Cohen’s inspiration, of course, but also serves as such for Broomfield himself. He arrived in Hydra, the idyllic Greek island she and Cohen lived on, when he was 20, embarking on a brief affair with her. They kept in touch over the years, and she encouraged him to make his first film—Broomfield is now an acclaimed filmmaker with countless projects and accolades to his name. In a break in her and Cohen’s relationship, she was a muse to Julie Felix, too. Their relationship wasn’t romantic or sexual (at least not as disclosed in the film), but Ilhen pushed her to write her first songs, and she, too, went on to succeed as a folk singer. Felix, interviewed in the film, remarks on Ilhen’s maternal qualities, recalling her emotional generosity and her supportive nature, attributing Ilhen’s remarkable ability to draw out creative work from others to her gender. In her eyes, Ilhen is the quintessential woman: a person who gives life, in every sense.
It seems the question we’re supposed to consider while watching Marianne and Leonard is, did Cohen exploit her? The film feels like it’s meant to be an ethical dilemma, or an ethical corrective, perhaps, as Broomfield seems to think he’s finally giving Ilhen her due: putting her name first in the title, telling her story. It poses another gray area to the problem of separating the art from the artist—a problem that has gained import over the years as talented men stand accused of hideous and predatory behavior, leaving their audiences to denounce their work or come up with a way to excuse their ongoing fandom. But Cohen does not fit into this category, and Ilhen accuses him of nothing. His misogyny, if we want to call it that, is the benevolent kind: glorifying women such so that they become unreal.
The woman who was herself spurred to success by Ilhen sees this quality in Cohen as a kind of feminism, recounting a story in which Cohen said he couldn’t wait for women to rule the world, instead of men. This posing of the enlightened woman in opposition to the fallen man is, though, just an excuse for poor male behavior. No one gender is more thoughtless or cruel than another, thought it behooves the thoughtless and cruel to think this way. It’s not their fault if it’s innate. I guess the question is not, can we ethically separate the art from the artist, but can we ethically separate the art from the muse?
I used to want to be a muse. I read Death of a Lady’s Man in high school, Cohen’s book of poetry dedicated to his mother, Masha, who was, according to the film, a madwoman. The copy I had, and still have, was flimsy, aged, and water-stained. Tossed on the floor next to my bed, it was imbued with more romantic possibility than I myself, at that time, sexless and loveless, could conceive of being. I have a copy of my favorite poem in the volume, “I have taken you,” hanging in my room to this day. It reads: “I have taken you/I have fucked you/I have made love to you... Why is it/Even when you smile saying/yes now whenever/whenever you want me/Why is it I do not believe/I will ever hold you again... I wait for you to damage my appetite/so I can be something more/than a hungry man/waiting for the feast/with someone less hungry than he is.”
What I might find repulsive in another man—an obsession with younger women—I find endearing in Leonard Cohen, probably because he writes desire better than anyone. As a teenager, I wanted to be a muse because I so badly wanted to be desired. Intoxicating a person to the point where they would want to make art about me seemed like the height of desirability. I’m older now—27, two years older than Ilhen when they met—and being wanted no longer feels out of reach. For a long time, though, desirability became the center of my life. I wanted to experience it through every lens: mutual, one-sided, intimate, random, queer, straight, professional, political. Maybe it still is, and maybe that’s why I’m so ready to sympathize with both protagonists.
It is easy to watch this movie and think that Cohen simply objectified Marianne, in the sense that he treated her as an art object, or an art-inspiration object, and not a person or partner. He dropped acid days in a row and wrote an incomprehensible novel on their island balcony while she brought him sandwiches and drinks. He left her for Montreal and then New York, and when he invited her to him, he would never let her fully into his other life. She wanted to die, at times, because of the pain of not having him. But I think this read is too easy, and neglects the existence of real love between the two. Their union lasted for years, lasted, on some esoteric level, until the end. In a scene that feels too intimate, wrong to watch on such a large screen, a dying Marianne is filmed hearing Cohen’s last letter to her, read aloud by a friend, sent over email when he learned she was at the end of her life. He wrote, “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more.” Her hands are raised as she listens. He, too, died three months later.
It’s not that Cohen didn’t objectify her. It’s that it is a mistake to see objectification as happening in the place of love, when it actually happens in service of desire, which can, if we’re lucky, exist alongside love.
Cohen expressed this dichotomy in almost all of his work, as well as his life. One of his most popular songs, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” sounds like a prayer. A vulgar one, but a prayer nonetheless. This one he wrote about a different woman, Janis Joplin. He sings, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were talking so brave and so sweet/Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street.” These are the moments that make up the stories we tell ourselves about desire and love. The moments that become bigger than us, that are folklore and unreal just as they become canonical, truer than true, in which we make one another objects of desire—or muses. Last summer, I sat over my boyfriend on his bed, sun streaming through his one perfect window, laughing. He photographed my body, photographed me giving him head on his unmade bed, photographed my smile. A photo of me from that day, underexposed, sits on his bedside table in a cracked frame. I wrote a poem about that afternoon. I think about it relatively often. We become more real and dear to each other as we become more legendary, more made-up, more objectified. The two are inextricable, required to sustain the desire in romantic love.
On my wall, next to “I have taken you,” hangs a torn-out page from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, about beloved toys. On the page, the Velveteen Rabbit asks its friend the Skin Horse what it means to become Real. The Skin Horse answers, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The Rabbit asks, “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?” The Skin Horse answers, “It takes a long time... Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Loose in her joints, Ilhen was given front row seats to the concert Cohen gave in Oslo, after he resumed touring in his 70s.
Ilhen was the inspiration for several of Cohen’s most poignant songs, but she is remembered most for the one that bears her name: “So Long, Marianne.” Her voiceover reveals that she never much cared for this song. “So Long, Marianne” was initially titled “Come On, Marianne,” belying its lyrics, where Cohen is both bemused and exasperated at their entwinement. It’s the song of a man ensnared: “I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy, until I let you take me home.” He loves the spiderweb he’s caught in, but he won’t be able to stay. It’s earnest and apologetic, and listening to it after the film, it sounds like Cohen’s reckoning with Marianne, his some-kind-of-wife, and Marianne, his image of her. She is both a woman he lives with, and a woman who lives in his head. In Oslo, Cohen performs “So Long Marianne,” and she sings along, with thousands of other people. She is there, real, and so is her representation, her shadow, her spell.
Sophia Giovannitti is a writer living in New York.