Conventional wisdom holds that men want sex — and plenty of it. Also wealth. And fame. And power. And then more sex, please.
Of course, men want those things. But there is something else they want even more. Something less physical, less palpable, but prized all the more for its ethereal value. Every man wants to see reflected upon his beloved’s face a look of pure adoration. Men want to see what we may call the “Ilsa Face.”
This is the face that Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa Lund, casts upon Paul Heinreid, as Victor Laszlo, in Casablanca.
The La Marseillaise scene is the pivot point of the movie. The underground hero Victor and his wife Ilsa have found a temporary, precarious refuge in Casablanca, a city nominally under French governance. But France has been defeated by Nazi Germany and the Germans, commanded by Major Strausser, wield the real power. Victor and Ilsa’s only hope of leaving for the safety of America is to procure letters of transit held by Ilsa’s jilted and embittered lover, the amoral café owner Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Until the La Marseillaise scene, Victor and Ilsa are outwardly subservient to the Germans. Rick, by refusing to sell them the letters of transit, is outwardly complicit.
All that is about to change.
After failing to convince Rick to sell the letters of transit, Victor hears Major Strausser and his men singing the German patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine). Unable to suppress his revolutionary fervor, Victor strides to the café orchestra and commands them to play La Marseillaise. The band hesitates for a moment, just long enough for Rick to nod his approval. They then break into the French national anthem, and the café patrons immediately rise to their feet to sing along. Major Strausser tries to rouse his men to match them in song, but the Germans are soon drowned out by the musical zeal of the patrons.
Ilsa has no spoken lines in the scene. She speaks through her face, in three interspersed shots. Her expressions say everything that needs to be said.
In the first shot, as Victor strides past her, she looks up with concern, sensing that he is about to do something dangerous.
In the second shot, as Victor leads the patrons in singing La Marseillaise, fear overcomes her. Her shoulders rise and fall as the music swells. She understands the meaning of this act of defiance. The pretense of subservience which has protected Victor and herself, and the pretense of complicity which has protected Rick, are both about to disappear. Everyone’s cards are on the table, and the stakes could not be higher. These stakes will determine who will leave Casablanca and who will die there.
In the final shot, her expression of fear melts away. A half-smile plays on her lips. She understands why her husband made this fatal choice, and she accepts him and it. Her eyes radiate reverence and love.
This is what all men want, that look of pure adoration on the face of their beloved.
The Ilsa Face did not begin with Ilsa, and it is not always a woman’s face that beams this kind of admiration. In one version or another, the Ilsa Face has inspired men through the centuries.
In ancient Greece, the Sacred Band was an elite military unit in the Theban army comprising 150 gay couples. The Thebans believed that gay warriors excelled on the battlefield because they were motivated to impress and safeguard their lovers. If a member of the Sacred Band fell in battle, his partner would fight even harder for revenge.
Each man had his own Hellenic male version of the Ilsa Face, inspiring him to achieve heroic exploits. During the Theban-Spartan War of 378 – 362 BCE, 300 Sacred Band warriors defeated a Spartan force six times as large at the Battle of Tegrya. The Sacred Band killed a thousand elite Spartan soldiers, including their king, at the Battle of Leuctra, forcing Sparta to sue for peace.
The Sacred Band was ultimately destroyed by the Macedonian army under Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great. Surrounded and outnumbered, they fought to the last man. According to legend, their leader Theagenes fell last, protecting the body of his dead lover, just as Victor would have done for Ilsa had the circumstances required it.
We see the power of the Ilsa Face today in Ukraine. Many have commented on the courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a modern day Victor Laszlo, who refused to accept an American offer of transport away from Kyiv. “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said. That courage was undoubtedly inspired, not only by patriotism, but also by the presence of his wife Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska, who elected to remain in Ukraine with him.
Regarding her husband’s conduct following the Russian invasion, she said: “He has not changed. It’s just that more people saw him through my eyes.” Those eyes are the eyes of the Ilsa Face, and they help explain why Zelenskyy is still in Kyiv.
The Ilsa Face can have Janus qualities: one side exhibiting the look all men aspire to see; the other side exhibiting the look that all men strive to avoid. Again, Ukraine illustrates.
Since the invasion, Ukrainian women and children have been encouraged to seek safety abroad, and long lines of refugees have formed at the borders. But Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 to 60 are forbidden to leave. They must remain and defend their county.
There have been a few reports of fighting age men violating the edict and leaving to seek refuge abroad. But the most remarkable aspect of the war has been how very few fighting age Ukrainian men have tried to evade conscription.
Part of the reason for this rarity may be the Janus-side of the Ilsa Face. Just as men long to see the look of adoration, they loathe to see the look of revulsion. A young gay cartoonist identified as “Tyhran” recently described in a New York Times podcast his exposure to that revulsion. Tyhran did not want to stay in Ukraine. He recalled waiting in line for 7 hours to get out, as women stared at him. After a while, they started asking him how old he was, and why he was in line. One demanded that he leave the line “because you’re a boy.” Others began to shout at him: “Shame, shame, shame.”
Few men are willing to bear that kind of condemnation. Most would prefer to take their chances in battle.
If the Ilsa Face leads men to strive for nobility, it can also lead men to act ignobly. We saw that phenomenon at the Academy Awards.
When Chris Rock ventured a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia-caused baldness, Will Smith, like most of the audience, laughed. But a few seconds later, before millions of stunned viewers, he walked up to Rock and slapped him. Then he returned to his seat and hurled obscenity-laced invective at him.
What caused the change?
Will Smith may have laughed at Rock’s joke, but his wife did not. She saw nothing funny in it, and her expression let her husband know her feelings.
When Will Smith was nine years old, he saw his father beat his mother. In his autobiography, he reveals how he never forgave himself for failing to protect her. Now, upon seeing his wife’s face, he recognized his mistake in laughing. In his mind, another woman in his life was under attack, and he decided that he would not fail twice.
Of course, there is a huge difference between a lame joke by a standup comedian and a beating by a sadistic husband. Will Smith has been roundly and properly condemned for his act of public violence. But his was not an act of random violence. It was a twisted variant of the same syndrome we have seen in Casablanca, Thebes, and Ukraine. Men want to see the Ilsa Face. And as much as they long to see a look that vindicates their manhood, they desperately want to avoid a look that denigrates it. Will Smith saw that look in Jada’s face, and he was on his feet in a moment in a self-destructive effort to erase it.
Men are not uniform beings. Different cultures and different times will produce varying desires and aversions. But whatever changes may arise, we can expect that the yearning to see the Ilsa Face — and to avoid seeing its opposite — will remain a constant factor in the lives of men, helping us answer the question of what do men want.