In 1991, Claire Denis made the only movie to date that she has filmed in the United States: a long-form car commercial for Nissan. (The model in question, the Figaro, was sold only in Japan.) In the decades since, the film became so hard to find that Denis herself considered it lost. But earlier this year, the founder of the free streaming site Le Cinéma Club, Marie Louise Khondji, and her co-programmer, Bingham Bryant, found and bought a Japanese VHS version on eBay. As of Friday, the forty-minute featurette, titled “Keep It for Yourself,” is available on Le Cinéma Club in the form of a digital restoration of that copy; what’s more, the movie is no mere rarity but also a major cinematic treasure rescued from oblivion and now available to all.
The movie, done in melancholy black and white, is a minor masterwork of downbeat downtown romanticism. Sophie Simon plays Sophie Koudelka, a French woman from Dijon whose American boyfriend (Michael James), writes to invite her to move in with him in New York. She shows up—the city is first seen from the low-cost majesty of a tram ride, from Roosevelt Island to midtown—but, when she gets to his Tribeca building, he’s not there, and has left her a key to a vacant apartment.
The film, which fuses genres and moods deftly, boldly, and movingly, is as much a portrait of Sophie’s inner life as it is a vision of the city. Working with her longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard, Denis renders Sophie’s tangled solitude and loose-ends bewilderment in incisively composed images of randomly sublime street action, including scenes framed by the apartment’s windows. A chance encounter at a deli with another young woman (Sarina Chan) leads to a quick and brief friendship and a lyrical adventure that’s crowned by a simple yet thrilling tracking shot covering multiple city blocks (and by a song).
Then Vincent Gallo—in the first of his performances with Denis—turns up, late at night, at a parking lot (that’s where the car comes in), and all hell breaks loose. “Keep It for Yourself” at that point becomes a giddily comedic crime story, complete with oddball gestures of penance and a hot pursuit by police. The wondrous intersections of seemingly disparate fields of action lead to unexpected and momentous encounters. (Even the title turns out to be a diabolical twist of whimsy.) Denis’s film is a time capsule of New York habits, gestures, and sights; it’s also a political documentary on the wing, featuring a one-word New York Post headline—“WAR!”—and talk-radio bluster about the start of the first Iraq campaign. The grand scope of international conflict meshes with the tense air of ambient violence, both private and official, that’s at the troubled heart of the city—and of the distinctive, passionate, hard, and deep experiences that Denis distills from her American stay.