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Julia (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

JULIA (2021)

Featuring Alex Prud’Homme, Barbara Fairchild, Susie Davidson, Sara Moulton, Pat Pratt, Dorothy Zinburg, José Andrés, Ina Garten, Marcus Samuelsson, Phila Cousins, Stephanie Hersh, Anne Willan, Jane Friedman, Ruth Reichl, Danièle Delpeuch, Franςois Simon, André Cointreau, Jean-Franςois Thibault, Paul Bogaards, Russ Morash, Alex Pirie, Jacques Pépin, Marian Morash, Cecile Richards, Charlie Gibson and archival footage of Julia Child.

Directed by Betsy West & Julie Cohen.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 95 minutes. Not Rated.

Screened for the 2021 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Julia Child was arguably the first celebrity chef, the person who opened the door to the influx of TV shows about how best to prepare meals which has taken over cable television and news shows.

But how much do we actually know about Ms. Child, other than the fact that she was quite tall and had a distinct voice and could make a mean beef bourguignon?

This documentary tries to answer some of those questions – granted questions that have been answered before, because previous memoirs and the Meryl Streep film Julie and Julia trod on similar ground. So, there is nothing really new that we learn about Child in Julia, but it is still a charming and interesting view.

We learn about her childhood in a conservative California household, her unwillingness to just be married off, he experiences in World War II (on the homefront), her working with spies and her small part in the creation of the agency which would become the CIA, her move to Paris where she found herself and learned cooking, and her late-arriving fame (she was already in her 50s when she started filming The French Chef for PBS). It also looks at some surprising aspects of her life – her advocacy for Planned Parenthood and AIDS research, her doting, loving relationship with her husband, her natural flirtatiousness and her breaking many glass ceilings in the television world.

Part of the problem with Julia as a film is that it is trying to be something off of the Cooking Channel rather than a history of the famous cook. Believe me, there is plenty of footage of Julia Child cooking over her decades on television, even if some of it would look kind of old-fashioned on The Food Network. However, Julia overlooks much of that footage to toss in some food porn preparation segments, only showing the hands doing the prep. It is obviously done in high definition with too vibrantly bright colors and too clear video to be original footage taken of Child, even though the movie is sort of trying to intimate that that is exactly what it is.

In fact, late in Julia one of the TV chefs discusses how much different TV chefs have become since Julia Child’s era. And the film seems to go by the modern rules, sensualizing the preparation and romanticizing the presentation. Which is not to say that Julia Child was not fully aware of the connection of sex and food – this was also a cornerstone of her program, although in a more 1960s PBS slightly-repressed manner.

Julia Child was actually a very sensual, flirtatious woman. This film even found and briefly uses a naked photo of Child which was taken for (and undoubtedly by) her husband, which is slightly disturbing for those of us who grew up with her as a grande dame of cooking.

Of course they inevitably show bits of Dan Aykroyd’s famous parody of Child in the first season of Saturday Night Live. Honestly, I was sort of hoping Julia would skip it since honestly at this point in history, we see Dan as Julia more often than we actually see Julia, but that was probably too much to hope. At least this film gives a little context to Child’s reaction to the skit. Apparently, she kept a VHS tape of it and show it to guests. Also, a talking head admits, Child was always surprised when she was reminded how famous that she actually was.

Julia Child lived a fascinating, complicated life, one that Julia honestly sometimes only partially captures. However, if you overlook the newer spiffed up modern cooking sequences, it is a treasure trove of some fascinating archival footage and a reminder of why she was so beloved for so long.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: October 28, 2021.

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