Suzanne's Perfume Journal

This past weekend I watched The Scent of Green Papaya, a Vietnamese-language film which featured very little dialogue, offered up even less in the way of plot, and was enchantingly beautiful. (It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994.) Its story focuses on a girl named Mui who at age ten becomes a servant for a merchant-class family in Saigon in the year 1951; its focus is in allowing the viewer to glimpse the world through her eyes—and by “world,” I mean the small sphere that encompasses the affairs of the household she works in and its languid, green environs. The larger world of war and politics does not intrude on this story (at least not directly), and while certain sadnesses and tragedies do figure into it, they are the everyday tragedies that visit all lives, that touch all families at some point in time. The unexpected death of a child; the spouse who strays; the love that is unrequited yet continues to leave its piercing mark on the heart, even into old age. Therein lies their significance: while keenly depicted and felt, these commonplace sorrows do not occupy the film. Through the eyes of Mui, we see them as a part of life, not the all-absorbing whole of it, because through her we see so much more. From the moment we meet her, Mui proves that she is like Buddha, she is awake.

Awake to the small yet kaleidoscopically unfolding beauties of the natural world.

Awake to the spotted green frog that hops about on the slick surface of a rain-soaked leaf in the courtyard where she prepares food, hangs laundry and shines shoes—and to the rain itself, that makes the tropical, big-leaved plants glisten while filling her ears with its silvery and comforting sound.  Awake to the hiss of the fat in the pan where she is sautéing vegetables … to the insects that carry out their boulder-sized tasks as she is attending hers … and to the cache of pearl-like seeds secreted away in the heart of a green papaya.

What I love about this film is that it chose not to focus on the meager estate of a servant girl: Mui is not mistreated in any way; in fact, she is lovingly looked after by both the lady of the house and the older servant who trains her. If there is anything clichéd about The Scent of Green Papaya, it is the kind of cliché that becomes one with good reason: a reminder that our existence is largely shaped by the way we view life. When Mui arrives at this household, we assume that here is going to be a story about someone who occupies the meekest station in life and therefore must suffer all kinds of indignities. And we are treated instead to a visually stunning film that shows how wondrous and magnified an existence a person can have, no matter what station she occupies, no matter what sorrows endure side-by-side with life’s beauties.

(Realizing that my slant on the film might present it in Pollyanna-like terms that might lead one to judge it unfairly, consider instead the words of its writer-director, Tran Anh Hung. “In The Scent of Green Papaya, I wanted to show the regular life of the Vietnamese people. I wanted to show their humanity, which hasn’t been seen yet at the movies,” he said in a 1994 interview, noting that “it was born from the images I have of my mother, the freshness and the beauty of my mother’s gestures.”)

I’ve watched it twice now and have decided that if this film could be summed up in the notes of a perfume, it would be Maison Martin Margiela’s first perfume, known simply as “Untitled”—or rather, (untitled), in lower case letter and parentheses that I find both curious and funny. Offering up a quietly radiant combination of green notes, incense and orange blossom, (untitled) hits the skin smelling piquantly green and crisp, and as it wears on the skin over time, the fragrance seems to shift back and forth between smelling arid and incensey and cool and misty, always with an element of something verdant about it. The incense note engages the greens within a minute after the fragrance is applied, and it imparts a sensibility that I rightly or wrongly associate with all things Asian: it’s a detectable incense note, but one that is in harmony with the fragrance and does not assert itself in a way that overly draws your attention to it. It lends a touch of smokiness to the greens and makes me feel like I am in the courtyard of Mui’s house, laying vegetables in a gently smoking pan.

Equally present and upfront is the orange blossom note (“bitter orange blossom absolute” is how it is listed in the perfume’s official notes pyramid, which I’ll include below), which at first adds a citric bite to the perfume, underscoring the piquancy of its greens, but which later sweetens, thanks to the aid of jasmine, to add a touch of serene floralcy to the scent. There is nothing nectarous in this perfume; the florals and greens achieve an exquisite freshness that makes one think of clean rainwater washing over plants in a courtyard … and reminds me of the many beautiful scenes in The Scent of Green Papaya where Mui, as both a young girl and, ten years later, a young woman, washes her hands and face in a basin of cool water.  A heavy dose of clean musk casts the perfume in a mist that really works well with this composition, and there is enough cedar in its base accord to anchor the perfume and accentuate the other, drier side of the perfume that the incense introduces. Here is a yin-yang combination of coolness and warmth that says we are not in the great outdoors, but neither are we locked away indoors either. Wearing (untitled), I can easily imagine living in the beautiful Vietnamese house that Mui occupied as a child—a place where man-made and natural worlds meet—and in the imagining, be reminded again of how life is not made up of only one thing  ... and what a graceful act it is to acknowledge the balance.

Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) eau de parfum was created by perfumer Daniela Andrier and launched in 2010. It’s official notes are listed as:

Top notes: Galbanum essence, Box green, Bitter orange blossom absolute
Middle notes: Lentiscus resinoid, Jasmine, Galbanum resinoid
Base notes: Musk, Cedar, Incense resinoid

It can be purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue, where a 1.7 oz bottle is currently $100. My review is based on a sample sent to me by a friend. (Thank you, sweetest Ann!)

Image (top of page) is actress Man San Lu playing the role of Mui in the 1994 film, The Scent of Green Papaya.
Bottle image is from Allure.com

Perfume and a Movie (or in my usual fashion, the other way around)

The Scent of Green Papaya and Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) eau de parfum

October 9, 2012:

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