In Casablanca, it was Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who famously told Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), “We’ll always have Paris” when she asks him, “What about us?” Of course, with the two being decidedly “European” (even if Rick was just an expatriate), it wasn’t all that pretentious for the consolation to be offered to Ilsa when the pair of star-crossed lovers were invariably forced to part ways. After all, this was a time period when it was not only common, but encouraged for Americans to take trips to Europe as a means to expand their pea-sized brains. Particularly those with an “artistic flair.” In the 30s, of course, that encouragement was more toward men being told to enlist and do their part to preemptively stave off “evil” abroad. And many were all too willing to take the bait, as it was a way to evade Depression-era America.
Rick, however, claims to be nothing more than a nihilist who will play any side that suits him. He’s in Casablanca, Morocco because it behooves him to be in that moment. He’ll leave whenever a better opportunity comes along. Or so he says. But it’s all part of Bogart’s “hard-boiled” shtick. Which, of course, means Rick is nothing but a “softie” inside. Running a local outpost called Rick’s Café Américain, it’s just as the original play title says, Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Sooner or later. Especially those stranded in exile until they can secure coveted “letters of transit” that allow them to pass through Nazi-occupied territory unmarred.
But what feels like a lifetime before this, in 1940 Paris, these types of thoughts and concerns are still far from anyone’s mind, even Rick’s. Then called Richard before his period of jadedness would set in upon arriving in Casablanca. His necessary self-imposed banishment in North Africa came at a time after the Nazis infiltrated the City of Light, and he was blacklisted for his previous anti-fascist expressions in the form of running guns to Ethiopia and fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. What’s more, Paris as the Nazis descend is hardly anything to be considered “bougie,” as its reputation stands in the minds of Americans now.
Yet the idea that Rick was clichely burned as so many lovers are in Paris speaks to the self-flagellating nature of the average obsession with the city and what it “represents.” It’s not about the reality that it’s extremely costly to both travel and stay in Paris. It’s about the fantasy that if you go there, even if and when your heart is eventually broken, you’ll still walk away with the story of a “great love.” And isn’t that, in the end, what any life is worth living for? To be able to say, “Yes, I loved and was loved in return. Even though my ventricles were ripped at as though by the hands of an oafish harp player.”
Even for Rick, despite his cynicism, and the knowledge that he and Ilsa can never really be together so long as her husband, Laszlo (Paul Henreid), is in the picture (and his name is Laszlo surely for his Lazarus tendencies), this is certainly the case. Paris is the grand manifestation of his life’s apex. There is no need to feel a sense of abashment about saying something like, “We’ll always have Paris,” because, in this epoch, it was not yet such a maudlin trope. Nor was the city as connotative of housing primarily bourgeois pigs over lovers and artists (or both).
It was also in the 1930s that another hardened “Rick-esque” man named Henry Miller likely said the same thing to Anaïs Nin upon the jig finally being up for him in Paris. His artist’s life at last transferred back to America (after a brief detour in Greece)–the one place he never thought he would find himself in again. Incidentally, Miller’s year of return to the U.S. was the same year Rick was falling hopelessly in love with Ilsa: 1940. As for the latter in the relationship, it is so often her heartache that goes under the radar in comparison to Rick’s. In the audience’s mind, he is the one being truly jilted. Yet let us not forget that Ilsa’s hand is being forced by the vows and duties of marriage she promised to uphold long ago. And that in spite of her true love for Rick, she knows deep down she cannot break the bond she made already. For it is as Rick famously tells her, she’ll only end up regretting it if she stays with her Paris paramour–“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life.”
That’s what all love stories begat in Paris ultimately center on in the end: regret. Every wondrous, movie-inspired beginning results in the tragic coda we are warned of in Casablanca. Yet maybe this is simply the curse of Paris. To karmically repay those bourgeois and self-important enough to live in the city in the first place “on a lark” or “for artistic experimentation” with the scourge of irrevocable melancholia brought on by l’amour cassé. Of a level that makes one question often enough if it was all worth it to have ever lived in the city at all. Naturally, like Rick, you’ll tell yourself it was. Because of that old adage about it being better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It seems, in fact, like it ought to be Paris’ official mantra. At least to those who pass through it as a road stop on the way to somewhere else. Somewhere “more real.” As in, not so clouded by the mythic lore surrounding it–and the sadistic pull it has over relationships that commence there.
Maybe, after further consideration, it isn’t “bourgeois” to say to an ex-love that you’ll always have Paris. Maybe it’s simply the only thing you can say about such a surreal and remarkable experience. One that was always doomed to conclude because the precedent set by it starting in Paris meant that it could only go downhill from that point forward anyway. And, lest we forget, the Pet Shop Boys already cautioned us that “Love is a bourgeois construct.” In that sense, Paris is, indeed, the most bourgeois of them all. If only Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had been able to tell Rick before all this went down.