More than one generation grew up with the booming yet warm voice of Julia Child talking them through the steps to roasting a chicken or perfecting a hollandaise on her long-running cooking shows, from The French Chef in the 1960s to her series with colleague Jacques Pepin in the late 1990s. More than that, she taught countless amateur chefs how to let go of their anxieties about recipes or techniques and simply enjoy being in the kitchen, creating meals with as much love as flavor.
In Julia, the new documentary by filmmaking team Julie Cohen and Betsy West (co-directors on two other must-see docs recently, My Name is Pauli Murray and RGB), the life of one-time OSS officer (not technically a spy, but still, pretty badass) turned chef, cookbook author and media darling is charted with the same care and joie de vivre that Child brought to her kitchens. Child grew up wealthy, expected to marry well and build a home for her husband and family the way her own heiress mother had done; the filmmakers take care to explore how this upbringing, buttoned up and predetermined as it was, gave Child something to rebel against, even in her own polite ways. The discussion of the sort of bland, uneventful food she would’ve grown up eating sheds particularly delightful insight into who the young debutant would grow up to be.
As in their earlier films, Cohen and West are especially talented at elevating this noteworthy woman’s life and legacy to more than just what she’s best known for. In Julia, Child is soulful, playful, ambitious, and more; here, she’s even sexual and romantic, madly in love with her husband and best friend, Paul (whom she married “late” in her mid-30s), and wise beyond her years as she explains in a letter the three Fs to keeping a husband happy: feeding him, flattering him and…well, you can guess that last one. Julia could have easily been a film comprising the chef’s greatest hits, recounting her best years on television and her contributions to French cuisine in America. But thankfully, Cohen and West make much better use of their subject’s many facets, presenting instead a complete picture of a woman who followed her heart—and her tastebuds—to truly build a life all her own, one that, gratefully, we all get to share in, too.
Julia is now playing in select theaters.
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