Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Julia opens with a clip of Julia Child introducing her TV audience to “the chicken sisters,” the six headless fowl serried before her on a butcher block table. It is a delightful, intimate opening, in which the filmmakers declare their affection for the hilarious, somewhat outlandish side of Julia’s personality. That archival clip from “The French Chef” immediately establishes a connection between the filmmakers and “Julia” fans—and to everyone pleasantly surprised at Julia’s chicken sobriquets, among them “Miss Roaster,” “Miss Broiler,” and “old Madame hen.”
As one would expect from the filmmaking team of RBG (2019), the biodoc about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Julia is a well-researched and unabashedly feminist take on the life and work of America’s first celebrity chef. In addition to Julia’s popular TV shows and other archival video and audio, the film draws upon two definitive biographies, several of Julia’s dozen cookbooks, and her autobiography, My Life in France, co-authored with nephew Alex Prud’homme, who is interviewed in the documentary. The filmmakers also had access to Julia’s papers, including her diaries and letters; the typewritten manuscript, complete with handwritten edits, for Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961, co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle); and family photos, many of them taken by her husband, Paul Child, who was a graphic artist and a talented photographer.
Julia unfolds chronologically, and features interviews with culinary experts, such as Ruth Reichl, world-renowned chefs, including José Andrés of World Central Kitchen, and a bevy of upcoming and celebrity chefs, such as Marcus Samuelsson, author of The Rise, and owner of Harlem’s Red Rooster. Relatives and friends discuss Julia’s upper crust family, and her resistance to their plans for her early marriage. Russ Morash, a Boston public television producer, recalls Julia’s 1963 TV debut, as a guest on a book review show, adding great detail to her early successes—but it is French chef Danièle Delpeuch who steals the spotlight among the interviewees. Her vivid reminiscences of Julia and Paul recall their marriage, and Julia’s fearless encroachment of the famed cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, a male bastion where women, she says, with a signature French shrug, were thought incapable of holding heavy pots and utensils.
As the documentary recounts, Julia met Paul during World War II, when they were posted to the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon. In this sequence, as well as in others, the filmmakers feature quotes, appearing as type on the screen, from Julia’s diaries and those of her husband. They serve as moments of reflection, a respite from the very public record of Julia’s work and Paul’s contributions to it. The documentary depicts his architectural drawings for Julia’s kitchen (now at the Smithsonian), designed to fit her 6′ 2″ height, and explains his role as sous chef on the initial episodes of “The French Chef.” In addition to the charming diary entries, the filmmakers insert stunning sequences of Julia’s recipes prepared onscreen. These begin with her fond and oft-repeated story of her first meal in a Paris restaurant that inspired many of her fish recipes.
Julia ordered sole meunière at La Couronne in Rouen, and as she describes the delicate flavor of the sauce, and its careful plating, the filet is seen being dredged in flour before being dropped into butter, browning in a skillet. In voice-over, she says: “That’s what I had been waiting for all of my life.” In another sequence, the filling for a pear tart is poured into a perfectly round, ripple-edged pastry, its exacting yet sensual depiction emblematic of Julia’s inimitable style. Her passion for food, as the filmmakers so eloquently illustrate, was matched only by her exacting standards. Mastering the Art of French Cooking begins with “Kitchen Equipment,” including a culinary dictionary, and “Cutting,” that distinguishes chopping, for instance, from mincing, complete with hand-drawn illustrations. It represents the scholarly side of Julia, a Smith College graduate and an educator, but as the film recounts, when remarking on the importance of food, the passionate connoisseur of French cuisine, known for poking her fork into others’ plates, declared: “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you?”
Cohen and West’s well-paced, beautifully scored film (by composer Rachel Portman) is a sublime example of biography as historical record, in part because it documents Julia Child’s significant role in the rise of public television, and in the invention of “food culture.” More subtle, but equally noteworthy, is the filmmakers’ commitment to setting the record straight about Julia’s journey to independence and self-realization. In the 1970s, for instance, she was criticized for not supporting the then burgeoning feminist movement. In a wonderful clip in which a white, male journalist badgers her on this point, she reminds him that she is a working woman who does not often return home before seven in the evening. He does not understand her reply, but Cohen and West’s female audience will, and others will have to catch up–to Julia.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release Julia on November 5.