Paying tribute to TV chef Julia Child, this loving culinary documentary serves up the cinematic equivalent of a hearty meal.
November 04, 2021
Call it the SNL effect: in two of their past three films, Julie Cohen and Betsy West have celebrated pioneering women who've been parodied on Saturday Night Live. They've referenced those famous skits in RBG and now Julia, in fact, including their subjects' reactions; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seen howling with laughter when she first saw Kate McKinnon slip into her robes, and Julia Child reportedly played Dan Aykroyd's blood-soaked 1978 impersonation to friends at parties. Cohen and West clearly aren't basing their documentaries on their own sketch-comedy viewing, though. Instead, they've been eagerly unpacking exactly why a US Supreme Court Justice and a French cuisine-loving TV chef made such a strong impact, and not only in their own fields. Julia makes an exceptional companion piece with the Oscar-nominated RBG, unsurprisingly; call it a great doco double helping.
Julia arrives nearly two decades after its namesake's passing, and 12 years since Meryl Streep earned an Oscar nomination for mimicking Julia in Julie & Julia. If you've seen the latter but still wondered why Julie Powell (played by The Woman in the Window's Amy Adams) was so determined to work her way through Julia's most famous cookbook — first published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking completely changed America's perception of printed recipe collections — let this easy-to-consume doco fill in the gaps when it comes to the culinary wiz's mastery and achievements. Let it spark two instinctual, inescapable and overwhelming reactions, too: hunger, due to all the clips of Julia cooking and other lingering shots of food; and inspiration, because wanting to whip up the same dishes afterwards is equally understandable.
In their second film of 2021 — after My Name Is Pauli Murray, another portrait of a woman thoroughly deserving the spotlight — Cohen and West take a chronological approach to Julia's life. The two filmmakers like borrowing cues from their subjects, so here they go with a classic recipe that's been given slight tweaks, but always appreciates that magic can be made if you pair a tried-and-tested formula with outstanding technique. Julia's entire cooking career, including her leap to television in her 50s, stirred up the same idea. Her take on French dining was all about making delectable meals by sticking to the right steps, even while using supermarket-variety ingredients, after all. Julia boasts a delightful serving of archival footage, as well as lingering new food porn-esque sequences that double as how-tos (as deliciously lensed by cinematographer and fellow RBG alum Claudia Raschke), but it still embodies the same ethos.
Born to a well-off Pasadena family in 1912, Julia's early relationship with food is painted as functional: the household's cooks prepared the meals, and wanting to step into the kitchen herself was hardly a dream. In pre-World War II America, the expectation was that she'd simply marry and become a housewife, however, but a hunger for more out of life first took her to the Office of Strategic Services — the US organisation that gave way to the CIA — and overseas postings. While stationed in the Far East, she met State Department official Paul Child. After a berth in China, he was sent to France, where the acclaimed Cordon Bleu culinary school eventually beckoned for Julia. From there, she started her own cooking classes in Paris, co-penned the book that made her famous, turned a TV interview into a pitch for her own show and became an icon.
There's more to each ingredient in Julia, of course, and to the dish that is its towering central figure (alongside her two siblings, Julia measured over six feet tall, causing their mother to joke that she'd given birth to 18 feet of children). This is an affectionate film that's as light and fluffy in tone as a souffle, but it still packs its menu with the bio-doc equivalent of a full meal. The use of text from Julia and Paul's letters — both to and about each other — seasons its collage of photographs and cooking show snippets with personality. Weaving in sensual shots of cooking in action speaks to the depth of the Childs' marriage, too; in Paris, she'd fashion him up a lavish lunch followed by a sojourn to the bedroom, the movie informs. That said, many of Julia's highlights come from simply watching Julia on TV, including when things didn't always go as planned.
Talking head interviews from colleagues, friends, relatives, and other big cooking names such as José Andrés, Ina Garten, and Marcus Samuelsson help flesh out all the necessary biographical minutiae, but viewing Julia in action is the film's version of a main course and dessert all in one. She's unflappable, earthy, humorous and informative, her distinctive voice booming away as she talks through making everything from boeuf bourguignon to roast chicken — and it's easy to glean why America warmed to her as much as the butter-fuelled French fare she taught them to make. Why she sparked an entire genre of cuisine-focused television is just as plain to see, as is her trailblazing status as a female in the industry and a harbinger of better American dinners. The leap from jell-o salads to French omelettes and bouillabaisse was sizeable — and necessary.
Julia does come with one spot at the table that's missing a dish. When it trifles with thornier topics than its eponymous cook's career, upbringing, marriage and influence, such as her contentment with being a homemaker pre-TV stardom, her tricky relationship with feminism despite her pro-choice views, and her early homophobia before becoming an AIDS activist, it can feel like it's snacking quickly and moving on. The film savours the good, the great and the extraordinary, but these brief notes still leave a taste. In general, though, it's still the kind of appetising movie that'd have Julia herself exclaiming "bon appétit!".
Top image: Photo by Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock (6906383b) Julia Child on the set of her cooking show, 'The French Chef Julia Child, Boston.