Perhaps one of the biggest moments of cognitive dissonance I’ve ever had was discussing Casablanca with one of the architects at my firm. She was enthusiastic to the extreme: wasn’t it an awesome film, just absolutely perfectly, and with no possibility of contradiction, the most excellently hilarious movie ever! With the cheesy love story and the OTT acting, ridiculous sets, and amazing caricatures of life.
Well, I have never been in a place in my life where that made much sense to me as an interpretation. But, as with any great work of art that you return to again at different times in your life, I find that my interpretation of the film changes based on the differences of circumstances and context. What I think about it at any time becomes more a reflection of where I am than necessarily what it is.
I first watched it in ’95. I caught The Maltese Falcon on a Saturday afternoon screening and for months afterward I delved deep into United Video’s classic film section. Casablanca came near the end of this period partially because it had never been referenced in solving by Remington Steele to prompt Laura to solve a case, and partially because at 15, I didn’t feel much interest in what was purported to be amongst the great love stories of cinema.
I can’t be too precise about what I thought at that time, but I think my view could be summarized as being endorsing the overt cynicism, particularly of Captain Renault. The deeper sentimentality and humanism was less important to me, I delighted in Renault’s bare-faced corruption and his incisive banter. Of all the characters, he is also the only one in control of his own destiny, however much he might appear to pander to the Nazis, you understand that he is bending and swaying with the prevailing wind, not being subjugated.
Through my 20s, Rick Blaine is the hero of the movie. He is willful, worldly, unconstrained, respected, powerful, intelligent and charismatic. Ilsa is the weak spot in his armour, but after his initial shock, he regains his control of both himself and the situation. The film plays out on his terms, and so he encapsulates and defines the term “protagonist”. Laslow in comparison comes off as weak. His exploits are told, while Blaine’s are shown, and I could swallow wholesale Blaine’s interrogation of Ilsa on the perils of involvement with himself. Moreover, he has clearly won Ilsa by default, both by being her first exposure to love and by Rick’s decision to send Isla away with him; I felt that on equal ground, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He is virtually a charity case where it counts in the love triangle which forms the emotional heart of the film.
Now however, I’ve been around the block a few times, and I see things a bit differently. Victor, rather than Rick, begins to ascend as the Romantic hero of the story. The love Ilsa feels for Victor is derived from her sense that he helped make her the person she is, instilling the good qualities. Symmetrically, Rick comes to realize that Ilsa has come to play the same role in Victor’s psyche: he will abandon everything for her, and when he realizes that Rick can save her, he would rather that than she die with him in Casablanca. The love between Victor and Ilsa is no ephemeral fling born in tumult and divorced from the rest of their lives, it is definitional. The very qualities that make Rick desirable, especially his independence, count against him as Ilsa’s romantic partner.
Ilsa has always been a difficult character for me to interpret. No doubt, if her motives were plain, the appeal of the film would be greatly diminished. My younger self was inclined to see her as a martyr, sacrificing her true love for the Victor’s noble work. After the war, I thought, when the work is done, she could go back to the Cafe Americain. Now, I am far less sure about that; it seems to me that she must love both men, else there would never have been a choice. Her heart in conflict with itself comes through to me most clearly in the exchange with Laslow before he ventures to the resistance meeting. He as much as tells her that he knows about her and Rick, and asks her not for an explanation, but an acknowledgment. She can’t answer him because she herself is uncertain about the truth of the affair.
At all times however, Casablanca seems to me to represent more than just a light entertainment. It asks us to consider the nature of love, and I think that its great success compared to other love stories, is that it does not ask us to conclude that love is simple. When Romeo and Juliet each commit suicide for the other, we are moved by the tragedy of their mistake, but not, I think, by the power of their love. It is too simpe, too fiery, to be of interest. The appeal of Casablanca is surely that it reflects our own confusions, anxieties and circumstances of love and leaves us not reassured by the inevitablility of True Love, but contemplative of a heart divided and circumstances unfavorable, of decisions and opportunity cost, and of the variation that such a commonplace human facet can take.
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