The Wrong Man Gave Her the Right Feelings

Nancy Graham Holm

Some things should never be looked at up close, especially cherished illusions. These and other fantasies are best retained under the protection of long distance views.

So it is with the 1942 Hollywood film classic, Casablanca. Until we stop to examine the nature of Richard Blaine's and Ilsa Lund's "relationship," we are in love with their love and only too happy to bask in the intensity of their passion. Rick and Ilsa had the perfect affair in Paris and the ultimate resolution to their dilemma is emotionally satisfying because it is loaded with honor, grace and dignity. In the last five minutes of the film, we weep and sniffle no matter now many times we've seen the film. We weep for their love; for the pain of their separation; for sacrifice and honor.

Shifting focus to up close and personal, however, there is another story; a story we don't really want to see because the long distance one is far more enjoyable. Reality is often too complicated for pleasure and pleasure is what we want when we watch Casablanca for the tenth or twentieth time. We don't want truth but the truth is Rick's and Ilsa's "love" is shallow with little authenticity. This man and woman fell in love, undoubtedly made love (although we never see it) and celebrated their love without gaining any significant knowledge of one another. Their intimacy is phony. Anyone who's ever been in a serious relationship knows that true intimacy is established only with trust and knowledge. Yet from the beginning, Rick and Ilsa agree not tell one another too much.

Rick: Who are you, really?
Ilsa: We said, no questions.

At this point in their relationship, Ilsa believes that her famous husband, Victor Lazlo is dead. Two years later, Rick can't understand why she didn't tell him this and we can easily understand his confusion. Why didn't she tell him about Victor Why, indeed? Why all the secrets? Didn't she or couldn't she take Rick seriously?

Ilsa: I know so little about you.
Rick: I know so little about you except that your teeth were straightened.

What is it about Rick that makes Ilsa fall in love with him? When we meet him in Casablanca, he is hardly a man we can admire. He is self-centered, disillusioned, embittered and an exiled loner. He is cruel to his French girlfriend who begs him for his attention.

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That's so long ago, I can't remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
Yvonne: I was a fool to fall for a man like you.

What kind of man is Rick? Compare him to Ilsa's secret husband, Victor Lazlo who is educated, cultured and a political activist with an international reputation. In comparison, Rick is under-educated, unrefined and inarticulate. The best sweet-talk he can come up with is: "Here's looking at you, kid."

What else? Victor Lazlo is obviously older than Ilsa and although he is an elegant attractive man, it is doubtful they have a strong physical attraction. Ilsa alludes to hero-worship and their on-screen kisses are the small cheek pecks of a brother and sister. Rick Blaine, however, is a guy with attitude who invokes in Ilsa all "the right feelings." These feelings are powerful and she loves the feelings even though she hardly knows the man who gives them to her.

Had Casablanca been made today, undoubtedly there would be skillfully photographed bedroom scenes showing sweaty skin and faces in an altered state of consciousness. Passionate physical love is a bio-chemical bliss so powerful that many people get stuck there, preferring to be ecstasy junkies at Stage I of relationships instead of struggling to achieve true intimacy by facing the tedious emotional challenges of developed partnerships. Any mature adult knows this. We all know this and this is exactly why we love romantic stories: it allows us to pretend that true authenticity and intimacy can happen without hard work and sacrifice.

Rick and Ilsa's love is the love of the erotic with a large dose of magical thinking. The flashbacks don't really show us much but if we fill in the blanks we can well imagine how they fell in love. Ilsa sexually responded to a cluster of attitudes: the way Rick tilts his head, hunches his shoulders, lights his cigarettes and speaks with an American accent. Rick found the beautiful Scandinavian woman uninhibited, open and responsive. We can only guess how they are together in the bedroom but it is evident that when Rick wakes up Ilsa's Aphrodite, Athena disappears. Two years later when Ilsa walks into his cafe and rediscovers him, the feelings return.

Ilsa: I know I'll never have the strength to leave you again. I can't fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can't do it again.

Casablanca is a film classic for many reasons, one of which is its black and white photography. Theoreticians of media aesthetics tell us that black and white images are low definition, containing less information than colored ones. Less information requires the perceivers to work harder in order to decode the message. By increasing our participation in decoding the message, we invest more of ourselves and the experience becomes more subjective. This subjective experience is one of the reasons we love Casablanca (and other B/W films) and choose to see it again and again. Through the B/W images, we are invited to experience the intensity of the emotions and we love feeling those feelings.

We first meet Rick in a foreground close-up. Only his hand is seen authorizing an advance of 1,000 francs. Other close-ups reveal the objects in front of him - an ashtray with a cigarette, an empty glass, a chess board, and a pen. Then a slow tilt up the white tuxedoed arm to his face as he drags on his cigarette. Rick drinks and sits by himself, playing a solitary game of chess. He is a lonely man. We feel his loneliness and that's just the beginning. Eventually, we will experience every emotion in the script. Even committed feminists can identify with Ilsa when she gives up her independence.

Ilsa: Oh, I don't know what's right any longer. You have to think for both of us.

How many women have loved men like Rick, the wrong men who gave them the right feelings? No matter how much pleasure we get from watching Rick and Ilsa, we know this is a relationship that would never really work. Whatever it was that brought Ilsa Lund into Victor Lazlo's life and work is still a large part of her. She is refined, educated and noble. Rick knows this too which is why he decides to send Ilsa away with Lazlo.

Rick: Inside we both know that you belong with Victor. If you stay, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But Rick, what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Intuitively, we know that what happened in Paris was an illusion. In order to preserve it, they must lock it away forever, avoiding the contamination that would inevitably result from day to day reality.

What follows is the most famous good-bye in cinema history:

Rick: Where I'm going you can't follow. What I've got to do you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now here's looking at you, kid.

No matter how many times we see Casablanca, it's not possible to watch this scene without getting teary eyed. What touches us is the sheer beauty of the resolution. Victor Lazlo escapes the Nazi Gestapo. His muse goes with him. Cynical Rick now joins the cause. And the illusion of Rick's and Ilsa's Paris love is preserved forever.

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