'Complete Jean Vigo'; 'Citizen Kane 70th'

6:00 AM PST 09/13/2011 by Tim Appelo
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

The best movie ever made has come to Blu-ray in a must-buy box. The question is, which one is it? Most polls (including AFI and Sight & Sound) say it's Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, whose 70th anniversary is well celebrated with Warner Home Video's pristine, back-to-the-1941 nitrate print and an extras-packed set (Blu-ray $64.99, DVD $49.92). It includes commentaries from Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, the dramatic making-of story told in the Oscar-nominated 1995 doc The Battle Over Citizen Kane and the Globe- and Emmy-winning 1999 HBO docudrama RKO 281, with Liev Schreiber as a perfectly plausible Welles.

But The Village Voice's Georgia Brown has said French director Jean Vigo's 1934 drama L'Atalante "may be the greatest film ever made," and Criterion's The Complete Jean Vigo (Blu-ray $39.95, DVD $29.95), also inspiringly restored and extravagantly extra-enhanced, makes a persuasive case for that opinion.

The directors have more in common than you think. Both made early masterpieces that ignited scandal, got butchered by studios, enraged exhibitors, lost money and only got their due years later as a touchstone for future geniuses. They had similar taste in stars: L'Atalante's luminous heroine, Dita Parlo, was supposed to star in Welles' first movie, The Hearts of Age, until World War II scuttled that plan and he made Kane instead.

The sickly Vigo knew he would die young, so he had a fearless Wellesian appetite for self-destruction through self-expression. His ambitious 1933 short film, the boarding-school satire Zero de Conduite, which features students ripping the roof off their school and staging cinema's most exhilarating, ethereal pillow-fight scene, was banned. His producer tried to save him from controversy with the innocuous L'Atalante, a sappy love story set on a barge. Vigo made the commercial film into an art film, adding sensual power, verite realism, dazzling surrealist imagery (fog, Welles-esque mirrors, floating apparitions) and an anarchic sailor character (Michel Simon, echoing his role in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning) who has 20 attack-prone cats and keeps his dead best friend's hands in a jar.

As Vigo lay dying of tuberculosis, his studio, Gaumont, mutilated the film, replacing great scenes with bad ones and its immortal score with a hit tune containing the apt lyric, "Let's not think about anything." It flopped. "I was a real idiot to give so much of myself," said Vigo. He was wrong. He was a key inspiration for the French New Wave, especially The 400 Blows director Francois Truffaut (who brilliantly explains Vigo in this set). Vigo's cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, went on to win an Oscar for 1954's On the Waterfront (which echoes a scene in L'Atalante). Gaumont repented and restored L'Atalante to its glory, a complex history the Criterion disk illuminates.

Vigo died at 29; Welles died at 70, still overshadowed by his first fame. "The greatness drove him down to nothing," set designer Sam Leve says in the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, "because he was careless." This 70th anniversary collection shows both the meticulous care and mad carelessness that made Welles great.

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