“What it must’ve been like to discover food, love and everything else,” Ruth Reichl muses about Julia Child’s time first getting acquainted with cultures outside of America as she traveled the world with her husband Paul during the late 1940s in “Julia. “It must’ve been a rush for her.” One need not imagine the sensation when co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West deliver it time and again in their profile of the chef who inspired legions to start doing more with their kitchens when her passion combined with the still burgeoning medium of television became an irresistible recipe for success.
Cohen and West honor Child with a delightful portrait that abides by her desire to somehow turn household items into a grand meal, largely relying on beautifully presented still photos from her personal life and behind the scenes of her TV shows and written correspondence and journals, all vivid and full of the enthusiasm and energy she was known for. Child’s voice is present throughout the film, thanks to all the interviews she did up until her death in 2004, but like the directing duo’s “RBG,” which clearly had an eye on history in serving as both a celebration and introduction of Ruth Bader Ginsberg for generations to come, there is restraint in “Julia” with having its subject telling her own story when it’s context that’s needed for such an iconic figure rather than a blow-by-blow biography.
The filmmakers are smart to set the tone early, nodding to how Child’s good humor took the intimidation away from Americans trying their hand at French cuisine, starting on a knowingly cheeky note with an otherworldly looking roasted chicken that seems to be dripping in sex as much as au jus as Child talks about learning to cook. Indeed, as Reichl alluded to, Child’s passions were awakened in both areas when she met her husband Paul, a world away literally and figuratively from her conservative upbringing in Pasadena, California when the two served their country abroad during World War II, and as in “RBG,” a marriage in which the husband was completely supportive and undaunted by his wife’s growing stature becomes one of its illuminating central threads.
Covering the publication of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was initially rejected when it was thought “the American housewife might be frightened by the book as a whole,” with its attention to detail, and its subsequent rescue by Knopf exec Judith Jones, whose own bosses were unconvinced of its appeal, “Julia” impressively ties together the moment in which everything coalesced for Child, who had the wise idea to tour with the book and add demonstrations, which had been relatively unusual at the time, a tour that would eventually lead to coming into landing her own show on public television, paving the way for cooking shows far and wide. Although the film can feel at times in its final third to be slightly rushed as it contends with as many parts of her enormous legacy as it can, West and Cohen fashion another crowdpleaser conscious of the achievements of its subject while admirably considering contradictions in their character, finding Child to be a feminist trailblazer who quite literally saw her place as a homemaker and a woman who hung onto certain parts of her upbringing until she recognized a need to change with the times. For someone who embraced complexity but could serve up pleasure without getting hung up on the details, “Julia” is about as apropos as one could ask for.
“Julia” will screen again at the Telluride Film Fest on September 4th and September 6th at 9:15 am and will next play the Toronto Film Festival virtually on September 15th at noon EST and September 17th at 6 pm EST and in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 18th at 10:30 am. It will open in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics on November 5th.