In a rare stroke of smarts, the movie theater on main street in the college town where I live is currently playing Casablanca.
I am a person that unabashedly loves romantic comedies, even the bad ones. But at the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I can’t think of a single contemporary romance that comes close to approaching Casablanca‘s perfect balance of humor and poignancy. But then again, what makes Casablanca so wonderful (and so different from most romantic films) is that in the end, it’s not really a story about love at all.
Sure, we swoon when Bergman’s Ilsa enters Rick’s for the first time, and during that utterly sentimental flashback to Paris, but the film’s strongest moments are the scenes between Bogart and Captain Renault. They’ll always have Paris, but only Paris, because the affair ends as soon as the lovers are forced to face reality.
Though I can never quite get myself to believe her, Ilsa claims that she has never stopped loving Rick. But even if Victor Lazlo is not the preferred object of her affection, she must be the fantasy which allows him to continue to do his good work in the real world. As sheepish as she is, she knows that love is not as important as the end of Nazism in Europe. Or perhaps, she knows that the love she feels for Rick is the stuff of Parisian boat rides, not immigration across an ocean.
Casablanca is that rare accomplishment– the cynical romance. It’s a love story about the failure of love to conquer all, and the resiliency of friendship as that thing that remains after the pomp and circumstance of the love affair is over.