Julia is a fairly standard documentary about a woman who was anything but standard. It tells the life story of trailblazing chef Julia Child from her upper-class upbringing to her years in Paris and eventually to her iconic television show. Running themes include the difficulty of being a woman in the culinary arts during the mid-20th century, her incredible marriage to Paul Cushing Child and her unflappable demeanor in the face of obstacles. Child’s book, The French Chef, and her long-running TV show helped usher in a new era of American tastes and entertainment programming.
One of the benefits of documenting the life of such an important figure is that much of the story is already on the record through photographs, video and audio recordings. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make use of these resources throughout. Child speaks for herself; there’s little they need to do to spruce classic episodes of her cooking show to make it interesting. Her high-pitched, ever-positive and often improvisational cooking instructions remain pretty fun to watch. The filmmakers also used letters between Child and her husband to underscore the nature of their half-century love story. It’s a well-researched piece.
Like Child herself, the tone is present and positive. Her work on and off the screen was responsible for encouraging millions to start cooking on their own. Although we’re a generation removed from those who worked directly with her, the way she demystified French cooking remains a key milestone in America’s relationship with food. Unlike on her show, where food rarely looked as good as it would when professionally photographed, footage of beautiful, sensual cooking permeates this film. It’s a mouthwatering visual experience.
That tone, though, means that certain dramatic beats are moved through quickly to get to the next anecdote about its subject’s life, particularly in the back half. A segment about her non-presence in France — and shrewd business sense — feels like a non sequitur rather than an essential personality trait that informs her life. There’s a side to her we don’t see in this film, one that might run counter to the mythologizing of the rest of the film. Additionally, when discussing her relationship with the LGBTQ community, one of her friends notes that she was slow to change on accepting the diversity of human sexuality.
Although she did become a positive presence in the LGBTQ community after losing a friend to AIDS, it feels like mentioning these elements of her personality and life without properly contextualizing them in the overall story the documentary is telling doesn’t do justice to the entire picture of who she was. As the documentary notes early on, Child would say she grew up middle-class despite coming from a decidedly rich family that likely enjoyed the homecooked meals of hired help. Her conservative Republican father, although he did not agree with her more liberal lifestyle, had some effect on her life and the way she handled business. Julia didn’t need to get into the weeds of who she was as a private individual, but a major part of the film is pointing out her influence on American culture and how she fit into the historical picture of the shifting norms in how women were viewed during the mid-20th century. Her slowness to change on certain issues humanizes her as does her business sense. They give her a place in the landscape as a regular person. It’s not that the movie needed to focus on her flaws, but the lip service paid to them without follow-up seems jarring.
Cohen and West are extremely thorough in their accounting of Julia Child’s life, so much so that interesting diversions are left by the wayside in their film’s start-to-finish structure. Audiences looking for new revelations about her personal life or cooking philosophy won’t find them here, but for those with little knowledge about Julia Child, this is a solid, if not particularly dramatic, accounting of her story and how she influenced American cooking culture.
Julia kicks off the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival with an in-person opening-night screening at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7 at Newfields.