It is quite remarkable that it has taken this long to make a feature length documentary about Julia Child. The iconic recipe book author and TV personality was a mainstay of American television for over three decades, and interest in her life was renewed after the release of the 2009 biopic Julie and Julia starring Meryl Streep. Sales of her memoir and her bestselling book Mastering the Art of French Cooking went up. Eleven years after that film, and seventeen years after her death, Julia attempts to be the quintessential summation of this extraordinary woman’s life. The result is a sweet tribute to the towering figure of a woman, and it is a hearty celebration of all she accomplished and all that she was. The film doesn’t offer much in terms of insight or complexity, choosing instead to stay mostly on the surface, but Julia Child’s winning personality and place in American pop culture is enough to keep it captivating.
Julia is straightforward in its approach, endeavouring to tell the story of Julia Child from her birth to her death, covering her major achievements and discussing her legacy. This is a tall order for a ninety-minute film, and there is little that is covered with much depth. A range of subjects are interviewed, from Child’s relatives, friends, and colleagues, as well as numerous people she has influenced. We also hear from Julia herself, and she serves as a narrator for much of the film, using audio from interviews over the years. There’s an abundance of footage to accompany the story of course, and several candid photographs, many taken by Julia’s husband Paul, are delightful to see. Excerpts from letters Julia and Paul wrote to their friends and family are also featured, and many of her most infamous meals are recreated. Everything comes together in a way that’s designed to be comforting and cosy.
Where the film lacks is its seeming unwillingness to dig deeper into its central character’s life. Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the team behind the documentary RBG, this film has no particular point of view or take on Julia Child, and they are not bringing anything new to the table. There’s not much here that you couldn’t glean from reading her Wikipedia article and watching clips of her show. The nuance of her choices or her character are largely left unexplored. She is repeatedly lauded as the woman who changed American cooking forever, though the specifics of this are never explained beyond showing the kind of food housewives often cooked in the 1950s. There’s no denying her influence but without a more complex examination of the state of cooking and food in America at the time it is hard for these claims to have the impact they intend to.
The film also shies away from delving into any of the more difficult parts of her life such as the dissolution of the relationship with her co-author Simone Beck, or her unfulfilled desire to have a child, each given only a couple of minutes of time. Controversies and criticisms are similarly glossed over, such as Child stating she believed the best place for a woman was to be in the home taking care of her husband. This interview is immediately passed by in favour of discussing how much she did for women in the cooking industry, and what a pioneer she was. This is undoubtedly true, but that doesn’t become less so by also acknowledging her limitations and flaws. A person can be influential and inspiring without denying them complexity.
While Julia does stay on the surface, it is nevertheless consistently entertaining, mostly because Child’s life was indeed extraordinary. A lot of the film consists of segments from her shows and many interviews, and she was such an endearing, charismatic person, you cannot help but be charmed by her, and subsequently the movie you’re watching. Her relationship with her husband Paul is emotionally stirring, and their love story forms much of the heart of the film.
The film was made with the support and cooperation of the Julia Child Foundation, as well as her surviving friends and family. This includes her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme who cowrote Julia’s memoir My Life in France and serves as executive producer. Julia is a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, skilfully crafted by Cohen and West. For more exploration of who Julia Child was, I highly recommend her memoir, as well as the Nora Ephron biopic. While it is sweet and tasteful, Julia is not quite enough of a good meal to leave you feeling satisfied, but rather wanting a little bit more.