Toward a Love That’s Really Something: ‘Casablanca’s’ Iconic Failed Romance

Ever since I watched it for the first time as a teenager, I have made it a tradition to watch Casablanca once a year on (or around) Valentine’s Day, often accompanied by my favorite red wine and a garlic-butter-basted steak. While the movie did not make my Top 5 Films List, it will always be close to my heart as it was one of the, if not the first, film that showed me the magic of Classic Hollywood cinema. I never grow tired of Casablanca or get used to its cinematographic beats, well-crafted script, or lush score. With every Valentine’s rewatching, perhaps aided by the copious amounts of red wine imbibed, I find myself overwhelmed with one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic films.

I have often called Casablanca a romance that’s not really about the romance because the romantic plotline is in service to the larger themes of being against political indifference and complacency. However, its romance is unique in its gestures toward realism. Casablanca asks us to consider our intentions when it comes to romance and what we owe to the person we say we love.

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Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, Morocco 

From the patio of Rick’s Café Americain, a bar in the titular north African city of Casablanca, operated by cynical American expatriate Rick (Humphrey Bogart), you can see planes taking off, carrying lucky European refugees out of Africa and toward America. Rick, an abrasively apolitical man who “sticks his neck out for no one,” is the fascination of many of his patrons, who suspect that he is not as unbiased as one might expect and that his cold demeanor is a front.

Enter Ilsa. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to Rick’s Café Americain as another refugee. She also just happens to be the woman who broke Rick’s heart by abandoning him in Paris just as the Nazis were invading. Their second meeting is disastrous, owing to the fact that Ilsa has arrived in Rick’s gin joint with her underground revolutionary hero husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  Ilsa’s betrayal in Paris seemed to make things irrevocably broken between the two. But we see the depths of their pain; Rick has shut off his emotions as a defense mechanism, and Ilsa spends her time wondering if reuniting with her husband was the right decision.

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Victor Laszlo, Ilsa, and Rick

In Lover’s Discourse, Barthes writes of his lover, “perhaps we shall never see each other again; perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us.”  And this is at the heart of Ilsa and Rick’s ill-fated relationship. Their physical distance in combination with their circumstances and the pain they’ve caused one another have changed them so much, and even though they play at giving everything up to run away with each other—for real this time—there’s the unstated but deeply felt truth that they can never have their Paris romance again. They have both been changed too much; the relationship only worked in the liminal space between free France and Nazi-invaded France.

Ilsa, afraid of once again making a choice that hurts someone she loves, asks Rick to “do the thinking for the both of us,” giving him the power to make the decision this time. But, as we in the iconic final scene on the Moroccan airport tarmac, Rick urges Ilsa to leave Casablanca with her husband. When Ilsa questions his decision, he utters the famous devastating line, “We’ll always have Paris.” The line that signals that it really is over between them, however much they believed they could make their ill-fated romance last.

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Rick and Ilsa in Paris

In Taylor Swift’s poem “Why She Disappeared,” Swift muses that after years of being in  relationships that crash and burn, she was in search of a love that was “really something, not just the idea of something.” Perhaps this is similar to the sentiment of “We’ll always have Paris.” Paris, where Rick and Ilsa’s no-questions-asked love develops and ultimately ends, is the idea of something. Both Rick and Isla were running from troubled pasts; his as a man of the people, fighting for a lost cause in the Spanish civil war, hers as the widow of a presumed dead concentration camp prisoner. In Paris, they were able to live and love without the depth that comes with knowing someone intimately. Perhaps they were in love with each other, but perhaps they were in love with the idea of being able to obliterate their pasts. Leaving Paris is leaving the suspended bubble of shared desperation to shuffle off their pasts.

Rick and Ilsa’s romance is one of my favorite depictions of a love that cannot be in cinema. No matter how much these two wish they could return to each other, they come to realize that, while they once had Paris, they can never truly get it back. Their brief love was the idea of something, not really something. However heartbreaking it may be, Casablanca advocates for cherishing these moments of emotional vulnerability—whatever our personal Paris may be—even going so far as to memorialize them, but recognizing when it is better to move on. 

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