Pièce montée (novel & movie)

Blandine Le Callet, Une pièce montée (2008)

author Blandine Le Callet

*1969, French writer (Pièce Montée, La ballade de Lila K, Dix rêves de pierre), essayist (Rome et ses monstres, Le Monde antique de Harry Potter (= encyclopaedia!), lecturer in Latin and Ancient Culture at Université Paris-Est-Créteil. Also known to the general public for adapting her first novel into a feature film in 2010. In that novel, nine attendees ‘tell their story’ following an eventful high-society wedding. The title refers to the wedding cake, a croquembouche1:

The movie, Pièce montée (2010)



On youtube you can find the ‘making of’ (with french subs)

INTERVIEW with the author

Below an interview with the author (computertranslated from the French into English). The original can be read on my other (Dutch) blog here

interview by Brigitte Aubonnet

Have literature and writing always been with you?
Even before I knew how to write, I remember that I loved telling myself stories. I used to invent dialogues with several characters, playing all the roles. From the age of seven onwards, the pleasure of writing came naturally as an extension of the pleasure of storytelling, and never left me. I took particular care with my school writing exercises. I was always writing, rewriting and crossing things out – in retrospect, I realise that I was already exercising that critical eye on the sentence that underpins the work of a writer. My work was often read out in front of the class; even though this may seem a pittance in terms of ‘recognition’, it helped me to discover the power of words and the joy of seeing one’s writing made public. Books have always been part of my life too. I didn’t like my childhood and adolescence, which I experienced as periods of constraint, dissatisfaction and often boredom. Books were an escape. They allowed me to forget my frustrations and open up to the world. For me, literature has always been associated with the idea of freedom, and even revolt.

Why do you start writing?
I’ve never really asked myself that question, because writing has become a natural and obvious part of my life. The idea that I wanted to be a writer became clear when I was about eleven, and since then not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about the books I would write. I think you could call it a vocation: even though I never envisaged devoting myself exclusively to writing, it is a daily preoccupation, and I always have several book projects in mind.

Your first publication is an essay, Rome and its Monsters. You talk about the norms established in societies to determine the boundary between normality and monstrosity. These standards vary and evolve according to time and country. Is this theme particularly close to your heart? For what reasons?
Studying the question of monstrosity helps us to understand the extent to which the rules and values that we imagine to be universal, eternal and intangible are in fact the product of a given era and society. This is not to say that these rules and values are not respectable, but that they are always open to debate and change. I believe that if everyone managed to become aware of this, it would be a great step forward for humanity!
Beyond this question of the relativity of the norm, the question of the exclusion of the abnormal (physical, mental or moral) interests me, because I believe it is deeply revealing of a society. It’s a truism to say it, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting!

How has this influenced your fiction writing?
I don’t know whether my academic research into monstrosity has particularly influenced my fictional writing. Let’s just say that my interest in the question of abnormality and exclusion – an interest that began when I was a child – was expressed in different ways: firstly, through highly specialised research into a particular period of Roman antiquity; and secondly, through novels in which these themes recur. What fuels both my research and my writing is my conscience as a citizen and a personal philosophical reflection.

Une pièce montée is a novel built around nine points of view at a wedding in a bourgeois environment. It’s a closed environment that also sets standards. What was the aim of this novel? How did it come about?
For me, this novel is above all a satire of the well-to-do Catholic bourgeoisie in the provinces, sure of its values, its good taste and its good education, while at the same time being terribly mean-spirited, materialistic and violent in its exclusion of anyone who doesn’t look like them.
I also wanted to tell the story of a party, with all that that implies in terms of staging (sometimes a little ridiculous and pathetic) our desire to be happy. The novel constantly plays on the contrast between what’s on and what’s off, between what people put on display in the social comedy and what they feel deep down inside. That seemed to me to be an interesting story. But at the same time I wanted to avoid caricature, by making the characters endearing despite their weakness, and more pitiful than detestable.
The novel came about a little by chance. Initially, I had in mind to write a collection of short stories, each set in a different marriage. Then I wrote the short story “Hélène”, about a young woman of thirty-five who goes to the wedding with her family, and who tells herself that she’s not satisfied with her very comfortable life. In the back of the car there was a little girl looking at her mother. I thought it would be interesting to show this little girl’s point of view. That’s what led me to write the short story ‘Pauline’, and then to write a series of short stories, no longer about different marriages, but about a single marriage. When I’d finished, my husband read the book and said, “Actually, you’ve written a novel.” I said to myself, both surprised and delighted: “He’s right.” I went back to writing the book to make it even more coherent: adding new details, fine-tuning the “bridges” and the play of mirrors, changing the order of the chapters to create interesting effects.

The theme of confinement appears in Une pièce montée, as it is a social confinement, as well as an individual one, as each person is confined to his or her own point of view. Is it possible to break out of the shackles?
Whether social or individual, none of us can escape this confinement. It is dictated in part by our nature, which is a little lazy, a little cowardly: going beyond the barrier of conventional relationships to establish genuinely sincere and enriching relationships with others, surrendering oneself, exposing oneself, all this requires a certain courage, and an investment that we are not always ready to make. It also means exposing yourself to the judgement of others, to rejection. Here again, it’s a risk you don’t always want to take.
All this goes hand in hand with social confinement: we are all associated with a status, a persona that has been assigned to us (sometimes from childhood), and which it is almost impossible to make others forget.
Most of the characters in Une pièce montée find themselves in this locked-in situation, where everyone is obliged to play the role they have assigned themselves, or that has been assigned to them. But some of them manage to get out of it despite everything: Marie, who reveals her homosexuality during the evening; the grandmother, who reveals her life’s secret to Bérengère; Hélène’s husband, who manages to forget that he’s a stressed-out man and finally tells his wife that he loves her.

You won several awards for this novel. How did that help you?
The adventure of Une pièce montée was a kind of wonderful gift of life for me. I had hoped for it, but never really believed that it would happen to me one day. Obviously, when all this happens for a first novel, it’s an extraordinary encouragement, a source of strength. But, looking back, I realise that it didn’t make me any more confident, insofar as each novel represents a different challenge. Just because you’ve succeeded in writing a book that readers have enjoyed doesn’t mean you’ll be able to repeat the experience, especially – as in my case – when the second novel is just as different from the first.

The Ballad of Lila K is another confinement. How did you come up with this novel?
I started with a news item from the 1980s: the painful story of a little boy locked in a cupboard, which moved the whole of France. I was about ten years old at the time, and it had an impact on me. Years later, I read an interview with this little boy who had become an adolescent: he spoke very lucidly about what had happened to him, but continued to show immense love for his mother. I found that both moving and distressing. With The Ballad of Lila K, I wanted to explore this bond of mad love between an abused child and his mother.
But I wanted to avoid setting the action of the novel in the contemporary period, so as not to fall into the trap of sociological testimony. I very quickly came up with the idea of transposing the story to a future world. To do this, I ‘grafted’ the story of Lila K onto the novelistic universe of an anticipation novel I’d started about fifteen years ago and left undone. Anticipation allowed me to introduce ethical and political themes into the novel, which are intimately interwoven with Lila’s journey.

You talk about the excesses of societies that want to protect against everything and ultimately deprive us of freedom. Can we live without taking risks?
The novel illustrates one of our ambiguities: we would all like to live in a world free of violence and threats, a world where we are concerned about our health and safety. People expect the state to protect them against health crises, terrorist attacks and so on. But on the other hand, everyone has a legitimate need for freedom: people are loath to be watched, to be told what to do and to be held to account. The question posed by the novel is this: how far are we prepared to go in abdicating our freedoms to ensure our comfort and safety? The novel doesn’t provide clear answers to these questions, but it does give the reader an opportunity to ask them, and to glimpse the drift into which our society is heading.

Your novel presents different forms of exclusion. What role does literature play? Is it important for you to denounce some of society’s excesses through fiction?
Yes, it’s important. The kind of literature I want to write is one that both explores the intimacy of human beings and tackles social issues. I want to appeal to the reader’s sensibilities as much as to his or her intelligence – in fact, the two go hand in hand. That’s what I like, to involve the reader in a story that engages them with the characters while confronting them with political and ethical questions.

In this novel, we have the point of view of a single character, Lila, who was removed from her mother’s care as a child. How has this approach changed the writing of this novel compared with the previous one?
In Une pièce montée, the crossing of perspectives was the basis of the novel’s construction. In La Ballade de Lila K, it’s more about the relationship with time. Before I started writing the novel, I wrote a synopsis of around twenty pages telling Lila’s story. It evolved a little after that, but that was the gist of the story. The next question was in what order I was going to tell it. Chronological order didn’t seem interesting enough. So I came up with the idea of making Lila an amnesiac in search of her past. This allowed me to organise the novel along two chronological axes: on the one hand, the story of Lila’s reconstruction in the Centre and after her release; on the other, the reminiscences of her past that emerge as her investigation into her mother progresses. I thought long and hard about this construction and tried out several combinations. I made sure that Lila’s story wasn’t fully reconstructed until the last few pages of the book.
Generally speaking, I believe that every literary project has its own rules of novel construction, its own issues.

Reading and meeting certain characters will, in a way, save Lila so that she can find her way. You open up a lot of possibilities and hopes in this novel, despite the dramatic context?
I wanted to suspend this novel between darkness and hope, to suggest all the paths that a life can take, the shifts that can occur at any moment. I also wanted to leave the ending totally ambiguous, giving the reader enough information to imagine an optimistic ending or, on the contrary, a very dark one. It’s up to them to decide, and whatever they decide, they’ll be right.

What are your current writing projects?
I’m currently finishing writing a collection of short stories based on epitaphs – a project I’ve had for over twenty years.
I’m also working with illustrator Nancy Peña on a comic strip for which I wrote the script. It tells the story of Medea, a mythological heroine, witch, murderess, barbarian exiled to the Greeks, infanticide… Another monster!

Interview by Brigitte Aubonnet
July 2012

  1. Croquembouche = construction of crispy pastry made with puffs, pastry cream and caramel. In France, it is often served as a wedding cake, mainly made of cream puffs and caramel sugar (nougatine) mounted in a cone shape. This pastry is known as a “piramide de choux” or “pièce montée”