How a Small Streaming Service With Big Ambitions Saved a Little-Seen Claire Denis Film

Marie-Louise Khondji's curated streaming outfit Le Cinéma Club relaunches today with a long-lost Claire Denis film and a new sponsor.
How Curated Streamer Le Cinéma Club Found Little-Seen Claire Denis Gem
"Keep It for Yourself"
Le Cinéma Club

When independent film producer Marie-Louise Khondji founded Le Cinéma Club in July of 2015 in her bedroom, she had a singular vision for the curated streaming site. “The initial idea was really to create a platform where we can present one filmmaker and one film at a time,” she said in a recent interview, “while, at the same time, creating an easy guide for the audience to discover films and filmmakers they wouldn’t on their own.”

Each week, the site showcases a single film for free, helping guide its audience to an international array of established and up-and-coming talent. For Khondji, the one-week window was designed to “give better visibility” to the individual films and to create a sense of event around each pick. “We’re still in a relatively new era of digital distribution and I wanted to try this new model,” she said. “I was trying to imagine how to promote certain films and filmmakers, because there’s so much online and I thought there was a need for curation.”

While Netflix prepares for streaming service competition from Disney, Apple, and Warner Bros., there is an alternate circuit of smaller-scale streaming outfits designed to suit niche sensibilities. Le Cinéma Club epitomizes the potential of that trend: As the site relaunches today after a brief hiatus, Khondji’s original concept hasn’t changed, but it’s starting to become a business, thanks to new sponsorship from Chanel. And it arrives with an exciting discovery to host as its first new project: a rarely-seen (and long-lost) short film from Claire Denis, her 40-minute “Keep It for Yourself.”

“It’s a different process for every film, and sometimes it’s very easy and sometimes it’s harder, and this one is quite funny,” Khondji said of snagging the 1991 project for the site. She had previously considered hosting a retrospective of Denis’ shorts on the site, and during the course of her research, discovered the existence of “Keep It for Yourself.”

The black-and-white film follows the romantic misadventures of a French woman living in New York. The short, still Denis’ only project shot in the U.S., was originally commissioned as part of a planned omnibus feature dedicated to showing off the retro Figaro car. Denis was given just one mandate, to include the car. In doing so, she invented a clever love story and an ode to a downtown New York that no longer exists.

Denis isn’t the only big name the film boasts. It was lensed by longtime Denis collaborator Agnès Godard, and it showcases Vincent Gallo’s first collaboration with the filmmaker (the duo have now made four films together). It was the first film produced by James Schamus and Ted Hope’s Good Machine, and John Lurie gave the film its self-aware score. As an added bonus, eagle-eyed audiences will also spot cameos from fellow filmmaker Sara Driver and producer Jim Stark.

Khondji had long wanted to feature Denis on the site, and kismet helped it along: She ran into the filmmaker on a plane to the Toronto International Film Festival. “When I saw her, I told her about this site and the idea of showing this film, and she was very enthusiastic and kind,” she said. “And she said, ‘Of course, but I’m not sure where the DVD is or if I can even locate a copy.’ And then she looked for it and she couldn’t find the copies.”

So began a long-term project. “I’ve looked films before,” Khondji said, but “I had no idea it was going to be such a long search.” Khondji and her programmer spent months asking around for the short, hitting up other institutions that had hosted their own Denis retrospectives, only to discover that they had also struck out when it came time to locate it. That only made her more determined. One early hit — a 35mm copy in the Harvard Film Archives — ended up being a bust when they realized that the negative was completely damaged.

They were ready to give up when Khondji realized that the film was part of an omnibus, and when she went looking under that title, she landed on an unexpected copy of the entire project: a Japanese VHS for sale on Australian eBay. While that’s the version Le Cinéma Club is hosting this week, Khondji did provide a very happy update, as she believes her team has located the negatives of the film, and is hoping to be help restore them.

The new site will also offer a revamped editorial section, with exclusive photo galleries (starting with archival images from legendary photographer Brigitte Lacombe’s on-set work from Alan J. Pakula’s iconic “All the President’s Men”), selections from the notebooks of late master cinematographer Harris Savides, and interviews with the next generation of filmmakers.

“Because the platform is so much about celebrating and honoring each filmmaker that is presented, for me, the look of it was very important,” Khondji said. “I had been looking for a sponsor to reboot the platform and redesign the platform and make it even more exciting to engage with. The new platform is going to follow the same formula that is singular to us at Le Cinéma Club: one film every week and for one week and for free.”

Over the years, Le Cinéma Club has hosted a slew of gems, from little-seen works by master filmmakers (including Agnès Varda, Gus Van Sant, and Spike Jonze) to new projects by up-and-coming creators (like Trey Edwards Shults, Pippa Bianco, and Terence Nance).

In the coming weeks, Le Cinéma Club will host a number of other streaming premieres via its unique one-week only format, including a restoration of Chris Marker’s “The Koumiko Mystery,” a new restoration of Yasujiro Ozu’s early “A Straightforward Boy,” Adepero Oduye’s “To Be Free,” and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s short “Dadli.”

You can explore Le Cinéma Club — and watch “Keep It for Yourself” in its entirety — over at its newly revamped website, with lots more to come throughout the summer.

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