At a recent 70th anniversary screening, Casablanca proved to be as gorgeous and entertaining as ever. Honestly, what can I say about it that hasn’t already been said? I suppose I could say that it’s as though celluloid was invented to capture Ingrid Bergman’s mobile face and serene beauty on film. Each shot of her is like a work of art, whether she’s framed in almost otherworldly light in the doorway of Rick’s café or has a single tear glistening like a diamond on her cheek. I could also say that Claude Rains’ performance as Renault is a master class in acting: even when he’s not speaking one of the film’s memorable lines, he’s fascinating to watch – always actively listening and taking in everything around him, so that we can see Renault constantly calculating, hiding his shrewd instinct for survival behind a façade of slightly dim bureaucratic officiousness. Renault’s transition from self-serving creep to reluctant good guy makes him one of Casablanca’s most compelling characters.
One of the many things I love about classic films is that they can be as demure or as suggestive as the insight and experience that we as viewers bring to them. So when I was younger, I could easily believe kissing represented the extent of romantic relationships in films; now I can see that the demure kissing represents something deeper, that sex operates as subtext and undercurrent in so many classics. Related to that realization is my sense of how Casablanca highlights the sexual vulnerability of women in times of conflict. So many women in the film, from the young Bulgarian bride Annina to Yvonne to Bergman’s Ilsa must at least consider having sex with men in exchange for security or access. For the most part, we only hear about the women Renault sleeps with in exchange for exit visas, but Joy Page’s Annina poignantly embodies the desperate resolve of all the other women that he exploits.
Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), with whom Rick has a casual (on his part, at least) relationship, gets involved with a German soldier after Rick loses interest in her. Like Marlene Dietrich’s Erika in A Foreign Affair and Cate Blanchett’s Lena in The Good German, Yvonne uses sexual relationships with men in power to guarantee her own survival and security. The same men who would happily enjoy the beautiful Yvonne’s attention are quick to insult her, like the French bar patron does, but Yvonne’s choices reflect a stark wartime reality where survival trumps notions of morality and patriotism. Yet it’s not an easy choice, as the complex mix of pain and pride on Yvonne’s face as she sings La Marseillaise makes clear.
Rick, who has no problem using Yvonne for sex, is quick to judge Ilsa in moralistic terms, comparing her to a prostitute when she tries to explain why she had to leave him in Paris. He underscores the reality of women having to use their bodies as commodities when he mocks Ilsa for “poor salesmanship.” Even Victor seems to understand that Ilsa might have to sleep with Rick to get the letters of transit. But unlike Rick, Victor isn’t judgmental about the choices Ilsa might have to make. Victor’s empathy and respect for Ilsa, not to mention his courageous struggle against tyranny, make him the true hero of Casablanca; it makes perfect sense that Ilsa radiates such awe and admiration for Victor as he leads a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise, in direct defiance of the Nazis.