The New Le Cinéma Club
Claire Denis's Keep It for Yourself (1991) doesn’t immediately resemble a Claire Denis film. This isn’t surprising, considering that her films tend to be wonderfully unclassifiable, but her ode to New York City goes a step further and seems to actively present itself as a film by a different filmmaker: a lost artifact of the scrappy DIY filmmaking of 1990s NYC. The strikingly spare film opens with a man writing a letter to a young French woman, asking her to come to New York, which she does. When she arrives she goes to an apartment that the man has left for her. It's empty and barren and feels even more so due to Denis's use of high-contrast black-and-white photography. The young woman spends her time sitting in the apartment smoking, looking out the window, and occasionally going out to eat pancakes—seemingly awaiting word from the man who wrote her. It's restless and static and quiet. Then, out of nowhere, the woman is in the shower, loudly singing and moving back and forth, causing her plump breasts to jiggle with incredible force. She’s transformed from an object to a living, breathing body that is stuck in limbo and yearning to break free. From here the movie opens up and you are finally in something that just might be a Claire Denis film after all. What follows is a comical chain of events (including a pitch perfect turn from Vincent Gallo and music from John Lurie) that brings the young woman's body to a better, more fluid place. Keep It for Yourself is the only film Denis made in New York (and the US) and despite her ever-increasing profile, it has been more or less unseeable for the past 10 years.
Thanks to online cinematheque Le Cinéma Club, audiences across the world will have an opportunity to watch the film when the site re-launches and expands on June 14. Founded by Marie-Louise Khondji in 2015, the site has been exhibiting one new film per week, with the goal of creating an online space where a new generation of filmmakers can share their work, regardless of length, genre or commercial appeal, and where audiences across the world can access films and filmmakers they might not be able to discover on their own.
In the site’s early days, she turned to young filmmakers she knew and admired, like Mati Diop and the Safdie brothers, while also shedding light on new films and filmmakers from France (like Clément Cogitore, Justine Triet, and Virgil Vernier) and undeniable (but not necessarily obvious) up-and-coming cinematic forces like Khalik Allah, Zia Anger, and Ted Fendt, slowly growing the site while also cultivating an impressively eclectic mix of voices. She has also worked hard to feature smaller, forgotten, or previously unavailable films by more established and well-known filmmakers, as well as films that fall outside the typical auteur landscape, like showcasing the directorial efforts of two of independent cinema’s most well-regarded DP’s, Sean Price Williams and Ashley Connor. (Last year they also screened one of my films, a found footage piece entitled Silk Tatters .)
From a filmmaker’s perspective—especially a younger and less commercially minded filmmaker—the site is a welcome change from the rest of the streaming Internet where quantity tends to overshadow everything and it more often than not feels like one’s work is lost in an endless digital sausage factory. The focus of Le Cinéma Club is always and only the one film they are featuring, making for as thoughtful an online screening opportunity as I’ve seen. The site and its staff are funded primarily through brand partnerships that are involved with various side projects of the site, leaving them free to program only what they want on the site proper and keeping the movies themselves free to viewers. In the end what matters most is if Khondji and her team are moved when they watch a movie. This also means that they don’t pay filmmakers for their work, a sticky and problematic point across the festival and online film industry, but one that Le Cinéma Club makes up for with their careful curation and finite release periods. Artists being paid for their work is becoming more and more essential in ensuring that art and films aren’t only made by the rich, but it’s also increasingly important for work to be placed in a context that allows it to be truly seen, especially when the venture exhibiting this work isn’t in it for the money themselves. The goal of Le Cinéma Club isn’t massive growth, profits or to have eyeballs ceaselessly looking at their site, but instead to sustainably continue to share work while simultaneously creating a community of filmmakers and cinephiles.
From the beginning the site has also made space for the history and process of cinema, allowing filmmakers to share lists of films they love and have been inspired by. Their re-launch this June will see the site devoting more space for investigations into how cinema lives and breathes today, with a section devoted to photography, like the work of set photographer Brigitte Lacombe, and one devoted to images and words from films that are currently in production, opening the site up to a potentially kismet relationship between the present and the past.
Indeed, kismet, along with some dogged determination, played a huge role in the site’s being able to screen Keep It for Yourself. Khondji had long wanted to feature Claire Denis, and when she found herself on the same flight to Toronto as Denis, she took the opportunity to introduce herself and the site. Denis was into the idea of screening something, but when Khondji asked her about Keep It for Yourself—which seemed to be the perfect film for Le Cinéma Club—it quickly became clear that it wouldn’t be so easy. The last time they could find a record of the film screening was at the Harvard Film Archive in 2008. That print, it turned out, was now very badly damaged and unprojectable. Denis didn’t have a print nor a digital copy, and neither did producer James Schamus nor DP Agnès Godard and according to the owner of the unscreenable print, it was “absolutely the only [positive] print in the whole wide world.”
Khondji and her programming partner, the filmmaker Bingham Bryant, started searching online, looking for a digital copy of some kind and a serendipitous search on eBay led them to a Japanese VHS of a compilation of short films that were packaged together for a car company entitled “Figaro Story.” One of the films in the compilation was, lo and behold, Keep It for Yourself. They ordered the VHS, had it transferred, and provided some light restorative work, returning it to its native aspect ratio, removing interlacing, and adjusting the audio levels. For now, it is and will be the only way to see the film (unless another VHS shows up on eBay, that is). It’s a nearly lost film about a nearly lost city; the New York of the film is so far removed from what we experience today. The VHS transfer makes this reality even more palpable, adding format-specific sheen to the movie, and making it that much more powerful an artifact of early ’90s NYC.
The energy at the end of the film is heart-meltingly beautiful as a couple stands by a takeout window playfully ordering croissants, fried chicken, blueberry muffins, cheeseburgers, orange juice, and, of course, coffee. The scene is suffused by an energy of possibility, something that feels in increasingly short supply when it comes to meaningful opportunities to screen and watch work. But amidst all the massive amounts of content online, if you look, there are sites like Le Cinéma Club. For which, I am thankful. And for which every Claire Denis fan should be, too.