Written and directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
Julia tells the story of the legendary cookbook author and television superstar who changed the way Americans think about food, television, and even about women.
Oscar-nominated documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RGB) return with another highly compelling and slyly affecting portrait of a trailblazing woman, this time revolutionary American TV cook and author Julia Child.
Hollywood brought a snapshot of Child’s life to worldwide attention in the 2009 Meryl Streep drama Julie & Julia – for which Streep, playing Child, received a Best Actress Oscar nomination – but Cohen and West’s doc takes a far more expansive dive into the experiences and setbacks which made Child who she was.
One of the doc’s loftier claims is that the trend of “Instagramming” food might not exist without Child’s pervasive efforts to make cooking more approachable and less-intimidating to the average American. And yet, across its breezy 95-minute profile, Julia bolsters that claim with a treasure trove of supporting evidence.
From an opening montage of archive footage in which Child is shown introducing us to a “family” of soon-to-be-cooked chickens – the head of family called “Mr. Roaster” – her charm is self-evident, and cutting the montage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” sure doesn’t hurt either.
Much as Child’s distinctive voice has been widely-parodied for literally decades, her unglamorous appearance and self-effacing demeanour are really what made her so appealing to such a wide audience once she hit the TV waves with her series The French Chef in the 1960s.
Child’s mission was to stop Americans relying on ready meals and prove just how easy cooking could be, breaking down the barriers of fear which still prevent so many from actually using their stove tops today – while also clearing a path for other female TV cooks to follow her.
Much as there’s a tendency to deify figures such as Child, Cohen and West do a remarkable job of demystifying her instead, with numerous interview subjects confessing how hard-headed and, if necessary, ruthless she could be as a businesswoman. That’s not to forget her bouts of casual homophobia which, in later life, she at least sought to redress.
As influential as the TV series itself was, it was a largely roughshod production at first; there was no teleprompter for Child, and because it was being sent live-to-tape there were no means to edit flubs, requiring Child to impressively think on her feet and roll with the punches.
Just as much of the doc covers Child’s adventurous personal life, though, namely growing up in an upper-middle class family with a father who believed she should simply get married. But Julia was more keen to find work as a typist for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the CIA – and even had ambitions of becoming a spy, believe it or not.
Child travelled the world in her youth, where she met her eventual husband Paul, who opened her eyes to food, the world, romance, and Democratic politics all at once, causing her to grow distant from her immediate family. When setting her sights on a career as a chef, however, sexism ran rampant; she was the only woman in her class at Le Cordon Bleu and struggled to be taken seriously amid the belief that the kitchen was too intense an environment for a “woman’s temperament.” Right.
But Child preserved, had her ground-breaking book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” published in 1961, and used the promotional tour as a springboard to promote herself to a TV audience, leading to her landing her own phenomenally successful TV series.
Even Child’s marriage is mention-worthy as boundary-pushing for the time; her husband Paul is given a heap of credit here for encouraging her career free of the ego you might expect for the era. In incredibly touching fashion, Cohen and West detail their near-50-year marriage, and the heartbreaking impact that Paul’s 1994 death had on Julia.
But Julia continued to throw herself into her life’s work for a further decade until her own passing at the age of 91, a testament to her incredible longevity and sheer desire to bring a love of cooking to as many people as she could in her lifetime.
Cohen and West combine a wealth of terrific archive footage with audio interviews from Child herself, intercut with mouth-watering “food porn” B-roll and contemporary interviews with her family and friends as well as prominent industry figures.
While no 95-minute documentary could do full justice to a talent as immense as Child, Julia drips with joie de vivre from its every frame, and encourages audiences to find something that brings them so much satisfaction in their own lives – whether food or not.
In addition to being a lovingly crafted, moving tribute to a pioneer who broke down barriers for women, Julia is a paean to cooking as a joyous – and delicious – act of creation. But to indulge a film critic cliche, don’t dare watch it on an empty stomach.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.