Julia Child, whether you have read her books, watched her on television (by way of such modern conveniences as YouTube) or caught the CliffsNotes version of her extraordinary career in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, has changed your life. Julia, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s new documentary, tracks Child’s path from her Pasadena youth, to her courtship and marriage to Paul Child, to her return to the U.S., armed with French cooking techniques and a powerful need to share them with the American public, as if to say she was less a human being and more a meteor.
Ultimately, Child was both. She still is, frankly. We’re still feeling the shockwave impact of her influence on American culture—pop and culinary—six decades after she and Paul moved into their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts and published her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-written by Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle; 59 years after she appeared on WGBH-TV to promote the book and whip up a tasty omelet for I’ve Been Reading host P. Albert Duhamel; and 58 years after WGBH first aired her cooking show, The French Chef, and changed the way that people watched television and thought about food.
Julia celebrates Child, as it should. The way people speak about her, both in the movie and likely in your real life, is the same way people talk about a giant coming down from its hillside dwelling: She’s mythic, towering and, while this applies literally, Childs’ stature is more important, and more meaningful, when taken figuratively. Child clocked in at 6’2”. Big whoop. Anyone can be tall. Not everyone can reinvent themselves abroad in the midst of a world war, serve her country as an intelligence officer, meet the love of their life, learn the art of cooking at one of the oldest cooking institutions in the world, remake America’s attitude toward food as they see fit, and mold an entirely new idea—the celebrity chef—out of nothing more than a desire to share a passion for roasting chicken, baking pear and almond tarts, or breaking down table-sized fish.
It simply isn’t possible to make a movie about Julia Child without making a movie with an intense love of food that lazy types will half-assedly call “porn.” Julia is food passion. West and Cohen’s cinematographers, Claudia Raschke and Nanda Fernandez Brédillard, and editor, Carla Gutierrez, weave together sumptuous, sensual and calming sequences of dishes in progress; that tart in particular showcases the laser-focused craft required of great cooks while also driving home that food can be, frankly, erotic. Yes, Julia is a dutiful profile of its subject. It is also, as the young ones say, “horny on main.” West and Cohen don’t disguise the role a healthy sex life played in the Childs’ marriage. They don’t shy away from how the French read sex into food, either, but then: It’s the French. Everything in France can be tied to sex depending on who you ask.
West and Cohen have now collaborated three times, gaining attention for RBG in 2018 before parlaying that into My Name Is Pauli Murray, released a month ago, and now Julia. They’re a formidable duo in chronicling important, beloved figures in politics—My Name Is Pauli Murray functions as a prequel of sorts to RBG—making Julia a departure for them, not in form but in material. What they achieve in the film observes a much broader scope than their other work, and that scope makes Julia into a story one could glean from scrolling Wikipedia. Yet the depth of filmmaking reminds us of how much effect a single person can have on not only those closest to them, but those furthest from them, too. Your Top Chef brackets would not exist without Child. Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse would not enjoy household recognition without Child. Anthony Bourdain, recently treated to a dubious commemoration in Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner, wouldn’t be Anthony Bourdain without her.
This existential domino effect goes beyond cooking and into entertainment writ large because Child, in her way, made audiences rethink what constituted entertainment in the 1960s. Watching interesting people talk about and teach on interesting subjects in a humble, casual, interesting way adds up to good TV. Likewise, Julia, with all of its intimate, personal and professional accounts of her character and her rise to fame, is an interesting movie: Thoroughly enjoyable, brimming with things to say, constructed in a manner that ducks pretense for relatability.
Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.