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.
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