On love in Casablanca

Every time I see Casablanca I enjoy it. It's one of those great classics, rewarding to watch no matter how many times you've seen it before. After you've viewed it once and know the ending, you'd think the love triangle would get less interesting, but I find myself fascinated by it still. Of course I know who Ilsa will end up with. I don't even wish things would go differently -- Victor Laszlo is Ilsa's husband, after all, so it's only right for them to be together. Rick has to make the big sacrifice, being the sentimentalist that he is at heart. Besides, crossing Laszlo in any way would be akin to siding with the Nazis, and our hero can't do that.

So, while I don't question who Ilsa will be with, or even who she should be with, I find it quite interesting thinking about which of the two men she really loves more. On the surface it would seem to be Rick, right? In their scenes together in Paris, she obviously adores him. We never see her kiss Victor in the film, only Rick. And she also only speaks the words "I love you" to Rick. Her main emotion involving Laszlo seems to be fear: she tells him repeatedly to be careful and that she's afraid for him. And, while the guy is certainly admirable, courageous and fearless for his cause, there doesn't seem to be a lot of chemistry there. Ilsa basically admits as much to Rick, telling him the story of herself as a girl meeting this great man, looking up to him, worshiping him, with a feeling she supposed was love. Case closed, she doesn't, couldn't really love him, right? I am not so sure.

Let's look at the way the movie itself defines love. In the scene where the young Bulgarian girl comes to Rick about Captain Renault, to learn if he is a man of his word, she ends up asking him questions about love. "If someone loved you very much" she says, "so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?" Rick's answer? "Nobody ever loved me that much." Really, Rick? Not even Ilsa in Paris?

I think he's right. Ilsa certainly loved him, but not that much, as Rick says. Otherwise she would have done the bad thing -- staying with him and forsaking Laszlo. Does she leave out of her love for Laszlo, or does she make the sacrifice for love of the cause, doing her duty? Either way, Rick loses out. She loves him enough to lie to him, making sure he will leave Paris safely, but not enough so that his happiness is all that matters.

Let's apply this same idea of love moving someone to do a bad thing to the relationship with Ilsa and Laszlo. When Ilsa comes to Rick for the letters of transit, she certainly seems ready to do a bad thing, pulling out a gun and threatening to shoot Rick. He makes it very clear what is at stake, telling her that if Laszlo and the cause mean so much to her, she won't stop at anything, taunting her to go ahead and shoot. He's really testing her love for Laszlo here: does she love him enough to do this bad thing? Apparently not, because she lowers the gun. Her love for Rick seems to have won out, as she tells him she couldn't stay away and can never leave him again. Should he believe her? Should we?

It is possible to interpret it that Ilsa really has given in to her love for Rick. But I think it is really a sign of her love for Laszlo. She is willing to do the bad thing, leaving him, being with Rick, so that she can make sure of Victor's safety and happiness. Also, when she left Victor earlier that night, he says he loves her, and while she doesn't say it back, she does begin to ask him "whatever I do will you believe that I..." he tells her she doesn't even have to say it. The implication is clear. She is off to do a bad thing, but she wants him to know she loves him.

Besides, at this point in the movie, I don't see how Ilsa can possibly still love Rick. There may have been some lingering feeling there when she first saw him again. But after she came to explain things to him and found him drunk, she has lost her respect for him. And respect and love go hand in hand for Ilsa, as she explains in her story about her first feelings for Laszlo, as we see when she looks at him admiringly as he stirs up the crowd in the cafe. In contrast, she looks at Rick with contempt and disgust at what he's become. And surely part of what she loved about him in Paris was the record hinted at throughout the film, the deeds which make him wanted by the Nazis, too. She's a sucker for an idealist.

Even after saying she can't leave Rick again, her concern for Laszlo is foremost. "You'll help him now, won't you?" she begs Rick. When they meet the next day, she remains agitated about Victor. The show of surrender to Rick has been just that, a show. So the story Rick spins at the end for Laszlo about Ilsa only pretending to still love him, that all that was over long ago (which Renault says is a lie, and which may have been a lie for Rick) really seems to be the truth about Ilsa. But what Rick says about Paris is also true, that they had lost it and had gotten it back, although I don't think it's exactly how he says it is. Maybe he got it back that night Ilsa came over, but she gets Paris back when Rick sends her off with Laszlo. Because now she has her respect back for Rick, she can look at him admiringly again and remember those days in Paris fondly. She leaves him with the same words she left him with in Paris: "God bless you."

You can also flip this idea of love in Casablanca to test the men's love for Ilsa. Rick is willing to do a bad thing for her, more than one actually. He ends up killing a man to make sure Ilsa gets away safely with Laszlo, making her happy at his own expense. Laszlo also is ready to do a bad thing, at least as bad as he gets, telling Rick to use the letters of transit to take his wife away. "Yes, I love her that much." he says.

Not to be overlooked is the love all three have for the cause. All have done bad/illegal things and/or made sacrifices for the cause. But I don't think the characters are motivated solely by their love for right. While the problems of three people may not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy world, they still amount to something, and of course impact the way each character acts. Rick loves Ilsa. Victor loves Ilsa. Ilsa loves them both, but in the end, she seems to love Victor more.

The balance of love and sacrifice, ideas of honor and duty verses selfishness, all these themes make Casablanca endlessly interesting, its finale wonderfully satisfying. These are just some of many things that make this movie great and keep me coming back for more.


David Bishop said...

Don't you think some of that disgust in the bar could have been directed toward herself? She can't have come away from the whole affair in Paris without an extraordinary amount of guilt, and to see the consequences of her actions could possibly be what disturbs her the most.

Here's how I fall on the love triangle: Ilsa loves Laszlo more than Rick, but Rick loves Ilsa more than Laszlo.

Big Mike Mendez said...

I think that Rick and Ilsa really did love each other, but circumstances could not allow them to be together. It's so much more heartfelt that way, two lovers in an imperfect world, that it allows us to connect and identify with it. That's what makes it a classic.

Wendymoon said...

David, I see so many emotions in Ilsa (thanks to Ingrid Bergman's fine acting). Trying to explain things to Rick, she goes through sorrow, anger, frustration... I think I see guilt more when she's lying to Rick in Paris and getting ready to leave him.

But I was thinking more of the scene the next day when he's reasonably sober and asks her to finish what she was trying to tell him. She doesn't even want to look at him. Later she talks about how one woman has hurt him and how it's changed him. There she seems completely disgusted at what he's become. Whatever guilt she has for leaving him, I still think she is most upset at how he reacted to it. (Although I do find your theory of her being disturbed by the consequences of her actions really intriguing. And I like your love triangle equation.)

Mike, I agree that Rick and Ilsa really did love each other, and especially in Paris it's heartbreaking that the world crumbling and other circumstances keep them apart. Paris is about two people grabbing on to what happiness they can find in a crazy world where anything can happen. Because of this, I think it's much easier to sympathize with Rick and Ilsa, but I think there is real emotion there with Laszlo and Ilsa too.

Interestingly, while I think Ilsa was ready to sacrifice and stay with Rick, at the end when he makes things right it probably brings back those old feelings for her again, and makes it harder for her to leave at the end. So once again there is the idea of two lovers being kept apart by circumstances, which we find so tragically appealing. But if Rick hadn't made the decision to send her off, I don't think she would really have been happy staying with him. I guess it would have made for a different kind of bittersweet ending, but I prefer the one that made the movie.

Retro Hound said...

What a great analysis of Casablanca! I can't help but wonder how the analysis of When Harry Met Sally figures in here.

David Bishop said...

Do you mean that if she were to stay with Rick, she would regret it? Maybe not that day, or the next, but soon and for the rest of her life?

I wish I could make this post an extension of the one I did on the film about a year ago. It makes me feel like my post is really incomplete.

Wendymoon said...

Thanks Retro Hound! I leave the When Harry Met Sally analysis to you. :-)

David, that's exactly it, Rick was dead right about that. Re: your Casablanca post, I really enjoyed it. I feel like my post is incomplete as well. There is just so much to talk about with the film, I think it's impossible to do it all justice in one post.

Farzan said...

I love this film and its become one of my personal favorites. It never gets dull and I'm always happy to see it. Truly a classic indeed

Juliette. said...

Your post is evidence to why people cannot stop watching Casablanca--it really has something to say for all times. Marvelous, isn't it?

simoncolumb said...

Whats so good about this film is how it is simply timeless - the context could never be recreated, Bogart and Bergmans partnership and acting could never be reproduced. So often you are told of 'classic' movies that paved the way for the future - so when I watch it, I think 'well thats been done better since'. This is unto itself and is simply flawless. great read!

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