Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West approach the subject of their documentary, Julia, with the efficiency and precision of a Michelin-starred restaurant. While watching the film, I pictured a giant timeline of Julia Child’s life hanging on the walls of their production office. Their linear film is lovingly organized around a series of facts. Each significant moment in the celebrated cookbook author’s life and career gets its due before fading off the checklist. 1946: Marries Paul Child. 1951: Graduates from the Cordon Bleu. 1963: The French Chef debuts on public television, etc.
Although the film does a fine job of distinguishing between Child’s public persona and her personal one, Cohen and West’s movie isn’t meant to startle or excavate much in the way of new information. Julia is, instead, the recapitulation of a beloved icon’s rise, followed by her afterlife as the patron saint of television chefs. For anyone even slightly familiar with Julia Child, buying a ticket to see the film will remind them of a recipe they’ve tried several times before but still find pleasurable. It also acts as a companion piece to Nora Ephron’s fictional biopic Julie & Julia (2009), without the supernumerary presence of Julie Powell (Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen).
This new documentary doesn’t attempt to summon up the simulacra of Child’s inner life the way that Meryl Streep does in Julie & Julia. If Julia relies on slow pans of archival black-and-white or sepia-toned images, and charming excerpts from The French Chef, Ephron’s movie, in comparison, is Child’s larger-than-life biography filmed in technicolor. When the highs and lows of her life are scrutinized, nothing particularly revelatory comes to light. Julia’s wealthy, conservative father disapproved of the free-spirited Paul. Paul and Julia were unable to have children. And in a quick snippet, one of Child’s relatives quashes the rumor that she might have been a spy during World War II. Cohen and West simply want to introduce Child to a new generation. They interview contemporary star chefs who all, uniformly and universally, pay homage to Julia. Julia recontextualizes Child as the primogenitor of food network programming, for better or for worse.
Although, one character in Julia’s life becomes more mysterious by the end of the documentary. In Ephron’s film, Stanley Tucci plays Paul Child as a loving, even-tempered and endlessly supportive husband. Julia doesn’t depart from that image but it does portray him as a more elusive and complicated figure. At least one of the Childs’ acquaintances who’s interviewed recalls that, at social gatherings, it was hard to know what he was thinking. What mattered to his wife—as it fits within the narrative of the film—is that he was reliable and entirely comfortable in his role as the recessive, silent partner. When his wife’s star began to shine, Paul did everything he could do to assist her.
Cohen and West aren’t merely sycophantic chroniclers of Child’s success, because they do find one questionable aspect of their subject’s sterling moral character. In Julie & Julia, we see her partnership form with the co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that established Child’s reputation as a culinary expert in 1961. The documentary advances the theory that Child edged one of them, Simone Beck, off of the American stage—they later reconciled. It’s the single flaw in an otherwise maternal and, since her death, beatific aura. Child appears to have seen an opportunity for herself and, at precisely the right moment, was ambitious and knowing enough to capitalize on it. Cream doesn’t rise to the top without some expended effort.
To briefly lighten up some of the dry accounting of names and dates and places, the filmmakers also include Dan Ackroyd’s parody of Julia Child from a 1978 Saturday Night Live skit. At the time it aired, Child’s cookbooks were bestsellers, landing in thousands of American kitchens. When I moved into my first apartment, my stepmother gave me her massive copy of Child’s The Way to Cook. I never attempted Julie Powell’s approach of trying out every recipe, but I did learn to be unafraid in the kitchen. With each successive recipe, I felt more confident when, with a bold knife and fork, I approached the stove. Julia Child instilled that feeling in her readers—along with her profound love of butter. Thanks to her, I wouldn’t dream of cooking a meal without it.
Julia opens in theaters Nov. 19.