Interview with Ingrid Chikhaoui, director of Trois grains de gros sel [Three Grains of Coarse Salt]
Monday 21 February 2022, by
Two sisters, aged 5 and 8, hang out alone at home in the middle of the countryside. Elsa, the youngest, swallows three grains of coarse salt. Judith announces to her that she’s doomed to a death by desiccation, and she only has a few hours to live. The mother returns, behaving ardently and feverishly, and turns the family’s destiny upside down.
Is it fair to describe Trois grains de gros sel as a coming-of-age story? Do the two children come into their own?
The film is about what it’s like growing up with an unstable parent; about the strategies children adopt to live with that. The children (and their mother) are beset by contradictory feelings that exist in all families: you love each other, then you hate each other… The film talks about that ambivalence, but I wanted there to be a lot of love among the people in spite of everything. The girls and their mother live through a strange day, but the children keep up, they defuse the violence they experience with childhood innocence. You can tell that they love their mother and the freedom she allows them: they can skip school, draw on the walls and use swear words – it’s exhilarating until it gets out of control. The older sister is coming into her own, she had to grow up quicker, she begins to understand that she has to be able to distance herself from her mother and tries to lead her little sister by the hand. The film depicts a game with the idea of death, and one part of their innocence dies a little that day, even though they won’t understand that until much later.
How much time passed between the first draft of the script and the making of the film? Did you change much?
I wrote the script very quickly. When I realized what I wanted to say, it sort of came out like it is, like a confession. Two years passed until we shot the film, and in that time I worked on the script a bit each time I reread it. The point of view, which is the girls’ throughout the film, required rigorous efforts. We worked with Manue Fleytoux, the actress who plays the mother, beforehand in building the character, who’s always been tricky to explain, from the writing stage to shooting to editing. We had to precisely render the non-linearity of her crisis and evolution through the eyes of her children. She’s disturbing precisely because she’s being knocked off her path. A part of the character will always be indecipherable, firstly because it’s irrational, but mostly because it’s her children’s point of view and they can’t completely understand what their mother is experiencing.
How did you meet the actors? Did the very young girls have specific training? How did you direct them and / or frame them for the scenes where the children are alone?
I met Manue Fleytoux when I started at EnSAV, the film school at the University of Toulouse. We’ve been writing together ever since; she acts in my films; I help her out with hers; we complement each other really well. I wanted her to play the mother because she knows what it’s like to weather that kind of storm, and I knew she’d do it with true sincerity. She was very involved from the start of the project: she did all the illustrations you see in the background. She did a lot of preparation for all the slightly technical actions, but still left space for a certain vulnerability, which I found admirable. As for the children, I did a long casting call in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes where we were going to film. I wanted little girls who weren’t faint-hearted, who were at home in the country and sturdy enough to hold the film up on their shoulders. They had no prior training, this was their first experience acting, and we built everything on set around them so that they’d be as free as possible. There was no coach, everybody took care of them, especially the make-up artist and their moms who were with us on set. We worked off the script and improvised as needed in order to keep a sense of spontaneity opposite a professional actress who I knew I could lean on. They both understood the interplay between the two sisters and with the mom. I directed them by giving them bodily instructions – Look at that, Do this with your hands – so they wouldn’t get hung up on the script. Sometimes I’d give opposite instructions to each of them, to improvise on a situation, even when I knew I couldn’t use it, but they enjoyed that a lot and it helped to cultivate a playful side to the shoot which they sometimes felt was repetitive. They took up the challenge very heartily and that moved me. What with the chickens, the chicks, the insects, the crew and the children, we had a lot of very important moments, but we also had a good laugh. I think that comes across in the film. The Clermont-Ferrand Festival is hosting the first screening of the film and I can’t wait!
Are you more generally interested in portraying marginal characters in your films?
I’m very empathetic towards people who don’t follow the norm, who orbit around it, who observe it or who are rejected by it. I’m interested in them because I see myself in them. That’s where I belong, in the clan of people who don’t belong to the dominant clans, the bizarre people and the crazies, people who don’t have access to the right codes. That’s where I feel at home – talking about the world from the margins.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
Ce n’est qu’après by Vincent Pouplard, which I worked on as an assistant director. Together we met many teenagers and young adults who’d been passed on to us by Children’s Social Assistance, and their teachers. Making the film itself blew me away in what it reveals about the vicious circle of societal violence. And the film is striking for the bitter poetry and hope that it manages to convey about those uneven journeys.
What’s your definition of a good film?
It’s a feeling, one of those feelings that stays with you for a long time after the film is over.