Charbon : the night that burns

Charbon : the night that burns
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Charbon, which translates into English as coal is, above all, a beautiful thing, a beautiful black thing that shines and burns like the material that bears its name. Charbon is also the name of a book and now a movie. Harmony Coryn, with his group “Black new black” conceived the project in collaboration with the very fashionable publisher Kahl Editions. Director Elor Thevenet has expanded the book into a wonderful film with faces, voices and plenty of ambiance.

But Charbon also asserts itself as a summation – a summation of the night and of those who live life intensely in Paris. People who go to bed early might not know it, but the underground is more than merely a series of secret places where people go to party until dawn. It’s a network, a dense maze where the vanishing lines spin in all directions, infinitely tangling and disentangling themselves. There are also memory lines that lead to places that no longer exist (the Palace) or to faded figures (Alex de Reddé, or possibly even Jacques de Bascher) who have evolved into legends. Most importantly there are love lines that flutter around the vibrant young men and women who are the heroes of this book. The photographer Hannibal Volkoff is the inspired chronicler of the book reviving for the happy few, in a nocturnal and exciting way, the customs of “early Paris” of long ago. And some of their muses are real beauties, among them Simon Thiébaut and Régina Demina who meet after midnight in the Paris underground.

Simon Thiébaut is, well, Simon Thiébaut, which is a full time job in itself. And he is also a very talented photographer as the pages dedicated to him can attest. Régina Demina is a dancer, actress, performer, singer, writer and director. But do any of these categories still hold any meaning? The age of the Paragone is really over. Like all the actors in Charbon, the young woman makes art of her entire body, her movements and her voice; whether she is nude or clothed. The mystery, the infinite potential of the body and the senses are at the heart of their quest. These young people who (like the skateboarders in Larry Clark’s film, Kids) place le Palais de Tokyo at the centre of their Paris passing with a liberated detachment from under the verses of poetry’s noble father, Valéry: intellectualism is as strange to them as conformity.

Are bodies feminine or masculine? And what is there to say on that subject? The Charbon generation lives beyond the masculine and the feminine, in the image of Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Mauli, whom we also see in the latest film by Gaspar Noé, Climax. On the dance floor there are bodies and desires who feel no need to think of themselves in terms of “dad” or “mum” as the needy do. And when they talk about marriage, it’s with affection and sharp wit, sensitive to the vintage character of a ritual that comes from the same world as flowered dresses and orange wallpaper. Talking about marriage is precisely what Regina and Igor do, against the beautiful background of a pool; they dream of Las Vegas and silk dresses. Except that (but why “except”?) one of them likes boys and girls and the other, mostly boys. So, then any talk will be “for laughs”, a matter of simply going with the flow.  At the wedding there will be corsets and frock coats, pencil dresses and mini-shorts. It’s debatable whether mustaches will go with frock coats but in any case, it is likely that some people will wear hairpieces. Among the guests some will have made their transition, some will be in the process and others will do what they can with makeup and costume, and there will even be straight people in jeans and T-shirts!

Screenshot from the film Charbon directed by Elora Thevenet.

There is nothing more political than an indifference to established gender norms which are the most fundamental principles of bourgeois society. There is little overtly political discourse in Charbon, except from the pen of those post-urban poets known as rappers: “I don’t want to be political, my mission is artistic/but when I see all the traffic/ I can’t stay peaceful”. In conversation these words reflect the details of a daily hostility embodied by a group that everyone can strongly identify with: “old people”! But the political is everywhere—and the young people that Hannibal Volkoff photographs may spend their nights partying but are still quite diligent about demonstrating during the day. As Guillaume de Sardes observes, “If the basement is the location of all pleasure then the street remains the location of all struggle”.

The summary of Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Barthes, leads to temptation: what would the semiologist lover of Charbon’s parties have thought?  We know that he often visited the Palace in his heyday– because he really needed an escape from his office and because the boys there were so pretty. A wonderful photo of Philippe Morillon (recently on display at the Galerie de la Clé) shows him at a buffet, indifferent to the neo-baroque dress code, with a slightly bored look on his face that he suffers and cultivates at the same time but is still curious despite everything. Consequently, a Barthes of today, a bit too old to fully take part in the night time partying, and with a somewhat wizened body, might go from reading Charbon the book to visiting the places that his heroes haunt: with the deep sense that he is creating a way of being of the world for himself, or more simply, a style that probably epitomizes what is truly modern. What remains of 2018 will play out in the dark of Charbon rather than on the blank walls of white cubes.

And make no mistake: Charbon is destined to be legendary. In twenty years, the book will be a collector’s item that young people will circulate among themselves, they will make every effort to see the film (which will no doubt become a cult classic). They will dream of this moment of apotheosis of a slightly trashy beauty, like we dream about all kinds of “good old days” from the modern age and even earlier – without illusions against the apocalyptic backdrop of a defeated world and a shattered society, but fascinated by the grace of the “art of living through times of disaster”.

Photo by Guillaume de Sardes.


Charbon, Kahl editions, 2018, 300 pages, 60 euros.

Header photo : Hannibal Volkoff.