Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia.
Easy There Tiger Productions 2009.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve always been aware of Julia Child as an important figure in cooking, but I’ve only known of her indirectly. Of the PBS Digital Studios remixes, the Julia Child video was the only one I didn’t have my own experience with the source material of.

I actually watched the Academy Awards presentations for a few years, and I remember that this was one of those years. I had the impression this was about a direct mentorship or friendship, but apparently what happens is that a blogger challenges herself to cook every recipe in Childs’s book. But over the course of the movie we also learn Childs’s own story, so maybe I’ll finally understand why she made an impact on so many people that seems to go beyond writing a popular book and presenting a cooking show.

Also how have I been reviewing movies for ten years and this is the first time I’ve tagged Meryl Streep?

After watching the movie:

Julie Powell once dreamed of having her novel published, but long since gave up, and now works as a phone representative for the government agency responsible for reconstructing Manhattan after the World Trade Center attack, meaning that she spends all day alternately getting yelled at for government inaction or hearing people’s heartrending stories or both. The least successful of her friends, Julie is inspired to write a blog about the one thing that brings peace to her life: cooking. She challenges herself to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year, despite her mother telling her to give up her futile endeavor, the anguish of failed dishes she put in so much work on, and the strain that this challenge puts on her marriage.

Julia Child, a charismatic and headstrong American woman, moves to Paris with her husband, a low-level diplomat. Uninterested in returning to clerical government work, she finds her days empty and seeks a hobby to fill them, soon deciding to take a cooking class. Too experienced for the beginner course and not advanced enough for the upper level, she takes the professional chef course meant for GIs, and throws herself into the work. She quickly develops a talent that everyone but the woman who runs the school can see, and two French cooking teachers, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, invite her to teach with them. When their book of French cooking for Americans is rejected by a publisher for barely being in English, they invite Julia to rewrite the book for them in a way that makes it relevant to American readers. Julia faces the challenges of collaborating on a book that publishers don’t want to sell while her husband’s bosses yank him around the world.

The story makes a point to parallel Child and Powell’s lives, but their hardships are entirely different. Child and her husband have an unshakable relationship that is challenged from the outside by McCarthyism and bureaucracy, and Child is trying to create a book that a publisher will buy. Powell turns a hobby into a project that comes close to tearing her marriage apart. It’s a mostly superficial level that their stories parallel, and that’s mainly from picking the right pieces of the story to hang side by side.

It’s kind of a sour note to end on that, from the notoriety the Julie/Julia Project got, Child publicly commented that she didn’t think the blog was very respectful of her work, and the only resolution of that problem is that Julie and her husband decide that the Julia who said that isn’t the one that matters, only the perfect Julia we imagine from her body of work. It looks like there’s no real life closure on that, but that choice exiles the nuance of Child’s feelings about the blog from the movie, and when I went to read up a little, I found that it seems to be about how she was doing it as a stunt instead of any real respect for the recipes, as evidenced by having a lack of commentary about how the dishes came out. And from what it looks like, I can agree that it’s kind of a stunt, but not one meant to hijack Child’s fame, just a stunt to provoke experiences worth writing about, with a deadline to make sure that writing happens. It’s not about reviewing the recipes, it’s about the experience of turning a hobby into a challenge. The fact that it did end up gaining publicity and kickstarting Powell’s career is an accident of good writing gone viral. Perhaps a cook like Child, who seems to have emphasized cooking for the enjoyment of cooking and eating, was not a good choice of subject for a blog about cooking for the challenge of it, but I don’t see an insult in what Powell did.

There are times that the movie stays in one time frame for so long I forget that it’s alternating. Julie gets good news on the phone and announces “guess who’s coming to dinner?” and the scene changes to France 50 years earlier again for what seems like over half an hour, before we actually find out the answer to that question. I found myself more interested in Julia’s story though, so as frustrating as it was to be taken away from the phone scene before finding out, it was a little more disappointing to go back to the small Queens apartment again after all the big developments happening in Julia’s life.

I suppose the differences in conflicts balance each other out. Writing a blog is a pretty internal experience, and selling a book and dealing with job insecurity is an external one. As much as the early 2000s are becoming “period”, the midcentury France setting is still much more interesting and unfamiliar, and I might have enjoyed a movie entirely about Julia, even though Julie’s story is our way into Julia’s. As the movie leaves Child with the publishing offer, we’ve only seen the very beginning of her “teaching America how to cook”, and so perhaps there’s room for another biopic to follow.

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