I’ve Looked at ‘Casablanca’ From Both Sides Now

The first time I saw Casablanca was emotionally fraught. I was in seventh grade, had just started taking French class, and was meeting for the first time my French ex-aunt, who sang along passionately to “La Marseillaise” in that famous scene.

It was the night before the funeral of my uncle, her ex-husband.

As a child, I didn’t know much about my uncle except that he was an artist. One of the only times I met him was at my grandmother’s funeral, when I was about seven. I was going through a phase of being obsessed with shepherds, for some reason, and I asked him to draw me one. Instead, he drew me a box and said the shepherd was inside. My mom groaned at her big brother’s sense of humor—I wouldn’t get the joke until years later when I read The Little Prince—and insisted he draw me an actual shepherd. He did, and we later used that illustrated shepherd on the program for his own funeral.

I still don’t know exactly why my uncle’s marriage didn’t work out, but it was clear to me on that night before his funeral that his ex-wife still loved him dearly. It seemed to me that their love really should have worked out, if only whatever it was hadn’t gotten in the way.

Which brings me to Rick and Ilsa.

Maybe it was conventional wisdom, or maybe it was that sense of doomed-but-true love that pervaded my first viewing of the movie, but I always thought Casablanca was about the love story of Rick and Ilsa. Here were two people madly in love with each other, who couldn’t be together due to unfortunate circumstances. As we learn in a flashback, they spent a blissful period together in Paris before WWII heated up — a period only made possible by Ilsa’s belief that her husband, a heroic partisan, was dead.

Ah, but he wasn’t dead, only in hiding after escaping a concentration camp, and when she learns this, she had to leave Rick and go to Victor, to whom she was duty-bound — not only by matrimony, but by shared history and political convictions. When fate brings Ilsa and Victor to Casablanca, she appeals to Rick for help with their escape, revealing along the way that she really loved him all along, suggesting that they would be together if not for…

It looks for a moment like maybe they will be together. But Rick does the noble thing and sends Ilsa and Victor off on a plane, staying behind to take the heat off them. It always struck me as a sad ending for both Rick and Ilsa: star-crossed lovers whom circumstance has kept apart.

Now, I’m not so sure.

During the height of social-distancing, my husband and I watched a lot of movies. Like, a lot. And after getting through as many new-to-us movies as we could, we returned to the hits.

On my latest viewing of Casablanca, I enjoyed revisiting the skillful script and cinematography. It’s easy to think a movie like Casablanca is a cliché, but when you put it up against the average new release, you can see what a feat of filmmaking it really is: every beat is just so tight, every shot just-right.

But what really surprised me was my interpretation of the story. This time, I didn’t think it was a love story about Rick and Ilsa. This time, I believed it was about Ilsa’s undying love for her husband, Victor, and the lengths she would go to keep him safe.

Watching the scene where Ilsa sneaks into Rick’s Café Américain to seduce him didn’t feel like a cathartic release for star-crossed lovers; it felt like a desperate moment for a wife who will go so far as to hurt a man she genuinely likes to save a man she genuinely loves.

Perhaps she does still carry a little flame for Rick. But it seemed to me, on my latest viewing, that more likely she was carrying a certain amount of shame that she’d had a love affair with a pessimistic man who plays for low stakes, while her gallant and principled husband was fighting for a bigger cause.

At one point, Ilsa says to Rick, “I don’t know what’s right. You have to think for both of us. For all of us…”

I used to take this at face value. Now, I think of it as a cunning move: the exact right thing to say to get Rick to do what she wants.

I’m not saying Ilsa is duplicitous. I’m saying she loves her husband that much.

Maybe the next time I see the movie, I’ll feel differently again. I’m reminded of Rebecca Mead’s memoir My Life in Middlemarch, about the different ways she read the book as a girl, a young woman, a wife and mother. As she wrote of her own evolution in understanding the George Eliot novel, “Being absolutely sure that one is right is part of growing up, and so is realizing, years later, that the truth might be more nuanced.”

What do you think? Is Ilsa’s true love for Rick or for Victor—or is it something more nuanced?

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Sarah Begley

Sarah Begley

3.7K Followers

Director at Medium working with authors and books. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.