Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Scent of Green Papaya

(Mùi du du xhan - L'odeur de la papaye verte, France/Vietnam, 1993)

This is more a composition than a traditional movie. There are two large sets, both on soundstages in Paris, believe it or not, one of a middle-class home in Saigon in 1951, another a rich man’s home in 1961. Both are meticulously thought out down to the last drop of water, cricket in a cage, trail of ants, frog on a leaf, grain of rice. It would be impossible to point your camera anywhere on these sets without framing an incredibly lovely still life painting. It you could smell a movie, this would be the one, and you would savor every scent.

The plot is simple but moving. Mui, a 10-year-old orphan, comes to work as a maid. She is very good, self-effacing and helpful. We see most things through her eyes, she is endlessly observant and fascinated by the smallest things. A great deal of the movie is seen through windows … which isn’t as voyeuristic as it sounds, since these homes are mostly windows, very little distinction between inside and outside. There is no glass in any of them, just a variety of screens and shutters. The camera glides through these scenes and we see bits and pieces of what is going on.

When she is 20, Mui is forced to move and joins the household of a rich friend of the family. He is her age, grew up with her, never noticed her. One day he notices. It’s love. He teaches her to read. The end.

You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I eat it up.