At the height of summer, after two years of successive lockdowns and curfews, in Marseille as elsewhere, the night has been reclaimed by creatures hungry for music and dancing, for parties, for clinking glasses and glowing cigarettes. Masks are a bit of an afterthought.
The road is dusty and goes deep into the forest. I’ve been driving like this for about twenty minutes, following a van covered in stickers picturing skateboard brands or festivals. It’s just past one in the morning and I’m sober.
I wanted to put some tunes on, to get the blood flowing a little, but the player won’t work with my phone and the only thing on the radio is France Inter. A program about Plato and time. Not very rock’n’roll.
You have to go to the GPS location sent via text message an hour earlier. I’ve already covered about forty kilometers. But now I don’t have a signal. The guys in front of me stop. Four men, long hair, tattered Quechua sneakers, and cans of 8.6 beer in their hands walk up to me ask me if I know the way. Next to them, I feel like I belong in a cute rom-com.
A guy goes to piss out his beer, and I seize the opportunity to take out my camera. We continue down this dirt road for a few more kilometers, then, in the middle of the night, in a bend at the foot of a Lodgepole pine, a guy stops me and motions for me to roll down my window: “Park over there, way on the left, so that everyone can get through.” “Okay.” I’m not here to make a fuss.
I join the tottering and noisy cohort that continues down the path on foot. The moon is full and lights up the umbrella pines and olive trees. A few stars struggled to sparkle in the light July sky. The wind is hot and already, in the distance, I can hear the boom-boom that will punctuate the next few hours. On a concrete platform overlooking the entire valley, in the middle of nowhere, a few guys are hooking up some cables into the generator and rolling cigarettes. The night has only just begun.
No bouncers here, no cover charge or dress code. A set of speakers on wobbly stands, DJs as hot as the summer itself, a starry sky, guys who came here from all over the area, and, in the distance, the twinkling lights of Marseille. The volume cranks up. Some people are here to dance. Moving their bodies in front of the speakers, they’re already in their own world, far away from ours. Others grab a seat on the ground in a corner and get busy mixing Coke and whiskey in a bottle of Crystalline. There are couples making out in the middle of the crowd, others who wish they were and others still who are already sprawled out on the grass. It feels like an end-of-the-world movie. One in which society has collapsed and there are still a few crackpots left who, in the forest, invoke Salvation while dancing to the rhythm of the bass and the scratches of the turntables. All around, the forest and the hills are straight out of a Pagnol novel: a shepherd could easily walk by with his donkey or his flock of goats. But the blue, pink and green lights start to flutter, smoke rises in the sky. The air smells of weed and scrubland. The sky, a little overcast, is tinted with the lights of the city and goes from yellow to hazy orange. A freaking nebula dancing on the edge of the Universe. Beautiful, isn’t it?
People try to talk a little by yelling into each other’s ears. I can’t make everything out. Some people are thrilled to be partying again this summer, others never stopped. Antoine has hit every single party organized by the collective. Plus a few in Ardèche and over towards Perpignan. He misses the huge summer festivals. The crowd’s not as big here. But the night never stopped beating around these parts. It was just hiding, and trying to be a bit more discreet.
The hours go by. In front of a speaker, I see a tall guy with a hipster cap and a fanny pack around his chest, a blank look in his eyes and a scar on his cheek. He hasn’t moved since I got here. Behind him, a girl appears to be filming the entire evening on her phone, even when everyone around her starts jumping up and down raising their arms, as commanded to do so by the DJ God. It feels good to see people let loose. “Of course we’re here to get away from it all,” a guy with long hair tucked away under a sunhat tells me. He’s wearing an OM soccer jersey and is gulping down pastis from a plastic bottle. There’s a girl looking at me. She’s hot. And she looks completely lost behind her sunglasses. She walks over to me to ask for a light. I look at her, thinking to myself that she will never manage to light her cigarette. She gives me back my lighter and walks back to her dance spot. She approached me two more times again that night, tapping me on the chest with her fingertips each time to indicate that she wanted to smoke.
People are here to have fun. They go for a drive, they get carried away in the woods, they smoke a few joints under the stars and then return to their state of trance in front of the speakers. Everyone mingles without asking any questions, from the punk dude in the dog collar downing the beer cans to the boho hipster doing lines with blond girls in tight dresses. Nothing else matters as long as it’s night, as long as the bodies are rubbing and touching, the bottles are being drained and the music is pounding, always a little louder still. We are in a galaxy far, far away, no virus here. Come on, go ahead, pump up the volume some more!
Elsewhere, on other evenings, on other nights, the dancing goes on. The people of Marseille are finally back at their summer spots, under the July sun that refuses to sleep. It’s hot, people dress lightly but are happy to get lost in the crowd after showing proof of their PCR test. People ask each other, Hey, are you vaccinated? Do you know if I can get tested right here at the party? People show up early, so as not to miss anything. I run into Jack, the organizer. “It’s not easy throwing parties this summer. The collectives, the DJs, the venues, they’re all on their guard. They wait until the last minute. We’ve just been informed that the health pass is being enforced. We’re not sure we can keep doing this, it’s a mess. We have half the crowd we had last week. They’re killing us.”
In the meantime, everybody wants everything, right now. To be reunited with their friends, to inquire about those they haven’t had the chance to see yet, to finally sample the new octopus salad from the trendy food-truck, to throw their arms around each other, to dance like idiots by boogying to party tunes, to spit out smoke at the sky while closing their eyes, their feet planted firmly on the ground and their hands tight around their girlfriend’s waist, pressing their bodies together. Caro invited his girlfriend from Brittany. She’s in Marseille for a few days, and knocks back a few pints on the rooftop terrace – it’s a good sound out here tonight, and people need some air.
In trendy places too, people have been struggling with the isolation of the past few months. Thirty-year-olds looking for physical contact and hookups come to show off their new t-shirts, their masks politely hanging on their elbows as they listen to the latest hot DJ creating soaring rhythmic soundscapes. Personally, I’m famished, and I admire the deceptively relaxed style of the tanned creatures jiggling around in front of me, casually well-matched and elegant. You want a tip? The hot look this summer is a colorful patterned shirt, a vintage sunhat, light shorts and white sneakers without socks. I’m talking about southerners of course, Parisians are more into colorful high socks and Converse sneakers. The dance floor: the scene of the new class divide.
With each new song, people raise their plastic wine glasses to the sky, to celebrate the life flowing in their veins again after a week of remote work and Zoom meetings. And they don’t go too easy on those glasses. At the end of the night, it’s time to go, one behind the other, a little tipsy, filing past the endless line outside the restroom. A girl trips in the stairway and drops her e-cigarette. Ah, to finally live again!
The sun will eventually rise, over empty beer cans, used masks and passed-out bodies. The music will give way to silence and hangovers. Summer will end sooner or later, too, regardless of the variant of the day or the vaccination rate. The summer holidays will give way to another autumn. “We know things aren’t looking good for the fall,” said one of the evening’s DJs. “We’re taking advantage while we can, because we don’t know how long this will last.” A new wave, new restrictions, a new solution… partiers will find a way, they’ll find their space, their way to breathe. In a field hidden in the forest, in an apartment rented for the weekend, or in an abandoned swimming pool. Nothing can stop dancing people, they say. And certainly not a QR code or a few public health regulations. The night owls have been confined, deprived, and prevented from partying. But the turntable is crackling again, the speakers are there, and like it or not, the volume is cranking up.
By Théo Giacometti
Independent photojournalist, member of the Hans Lucas Studio since 2018, Théo Giacometti lives and works in Marseille, where he produces news stories for the press or NGOs, mainly on social and environmental issues.
To learn more about the photographer, click here.