Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

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Last night I finally got to see Julie and Julia, the much-talked-about movie based on the books Julia and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and My Life In France. Julia and Julia is a blog-turned-into-book that recounts how Julie Powell, an office cubicle worker who hates her job and is having an identity crisis, cooks her way through Julia Child's first masterpiece Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (Volume 1) as a project to bring meaning to her life. My Life In France is the autobiography of Julia Child, a legendary American cookbook author and TV chef. I thought I would put in both descriptions here, since contrary to what American may think, Julia Child is not universally known. In fact, as Anna Picard wrote on The Guardian's World of Mouth blog, internet savvy non-USens are more likely to know about Julie Powell, Famous Blogger Who Became Bestselling Author, rather than Julia Child, an odd-looking woman who had some cooking gig on the telly years ago.

I pondered these things as made our way to a movie theater in Lyon, France, for a pre-premiere, or sneak preview (the movie officially opens here in France on the 16th). Julia Child may be credited with introducing fine French cooking techniques to American housewives, but she is not a household name in the country that inspired her by any means, even if she did receive a Legion d'Honneur from the French government. I was even wondering if anyone else besides us would be there for the show. As it happens, the theatre (one of the smaller ones at the multiplex) was about 80% full, and as far as I could eavesdrop on, mostly by French people, not expats like me.

Perhaps because I viewed the movie in a place where Julia Child is not a culinary diety and pop-culture icon, I was able to watch the movie in a different way I think than most Americans. I think that this really is a movie about Julie, not Julia. The Julia parts are there to enlighten us about this legendary Julia figure, and why someone would give up a year of her life, more or less, to immersing herself in the Cult of Julia. Parallels are drawn between the lives of the two women, to be sure, but I think they are there to give weight and credence to Julie's experience.

Like most people who have written about this movie, I did yearn for more Julia, a whole movie about Julia. The scenes of France and Paris in the late '40s onwards are gorgeous, and the acting of Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, and everyone else in the Julia segments are just wonderful. I wonder if there is enough footage there to cobble together an only-Julia Director's Cut version (I doubt it, but it would be nice). But that's another movie entirely. In this movie, Julia is perfect because she's a mythical figure. She's the Julia that Julie worships and idolizes, and the Julia that is actually a reality in Julie's world, the one who tells a reporter that she dislikes whatever it is that Julie is doing (though it's not specified in the movie or in reports about the real-life incident exactly what she objected to) is not really the same person.

Compared to the perfect Julia, Julie is going to come off worse by default. How can a depressed almost-30something woman stuck in a boring job, living somewhere she can't stand, compete with a woman who seems to be on an extended honeymoon in a dreamlike city? More to the point, she's just a blogger. If you have been blogging for any length of time, you may know by now that the world at large, the part that only use the internets for email and looking at cute cat pictures, not to mention more than a few "professional" journalists and writers, tend to sneer at bloggers. They regard them - us - as self-centered twits who gaze too intently at our navels, then have the nerve to expose our navel lint to the general public. Amy Adams made her about as appealing as possible probably, but she had an impossible task to begin with.

Nevertheless, Julie is the one who most people are closer to in reality. We can dream about and aspire to becoming like Julia. But when we blog, in some way we are being Julie; using our writing to express ourselves, as an outlet for our thoughts or our stunted creativity, to find an audience out there who just might appreciate us. There are thousands, if not millions, of Julies out there. I'm one of them.

When I started Just Hungry in late 2003, I was at a pretty low point mentally. I had recently finished writing a book about web tech things, which ended up being something very different from what I set it out to be. I had a personal blog already, but somehow could not get myself out of the rut of writing about web-design this or CSS-that. Not that there is anything wrong with those subjects, but I felt like writing for my blog was like taking a busman's holiday - I could never get away from the day job. So I started a little blog about one of my lifelong obsessions, food. My blog did not grow as fast as it should have perhaps - I was very unfocused, and I even stopped blogging for no good reason during 2004. And my writing at the start was pretty blah. (Derail: I got a chuckle out of this post on Tigers and Strawberries that I stumbled on when I was looking up links for this article. Apparently, my blog "iwasjustreallyveryhungry.com" (which was never the actual URL, though my blog's name used to be I Was Just Really Very Hungry) was dissed by a food anthology editor way back then.) Still, it brought a different kind of focus to my life.

I almost clapped my hands at the little things in the movie that only a blogger could appreciate - when Julie gets her first comment; when her husband tells her she has the no. 3 blog on Salon.com. (I never got hot sauce in the mail from a reader though. That part is sort of zeitgeist I guess. If it really happened, it was ok in 2003 perhaps, but 2009, I think we are wary of random strangers knowing our real addresses, let alone sending us food in the mail!) I've had those little "You Like Me, You Really Like Me!" moments too - when Just Hungry was a Featured Blog on Typepad, its original home; when I got my first email from a mainstream media reporter asking for an interview; when I got a heartfelt email from someone saying how my bento recipes were being used as inspiration by a group of women with eating disorders, to get them back into eating small portions of real food. Being quoted several times over in a feature article in the New York Times this week was another highlight. And if getting a book contract is supposed to be the measure of a blogger's success, I have one actually, and am in the throes of working frantically on the first draft. (Details to come.)

I can also relate very well to the struggle of trying to cook in an inadequate kitchen. I've been doing that for most of this year, as we move around from holiday home to holiday home, waiting for the Final Word to come on whether we can purchase the house we want or not. (I've been technically homeless since March. It's really getting old.) The desire to cook something delicious that uplifts the soul and fills the belly can overcome a tiny two-burner stove that slopes towards the center so that you can only cook in a pan straddling the two burners, and the limitations of a kitchen sink placed at such an odd angle that you bang your head on a hard corner cupboard every time you try to rinse some vegetables.

So despite her foibles and the comparative smallness of her vision, I loved the Julie parts as much as I loved the larger-than-life portrayal of the larger-than-life Julia Child.

One other thing: I think that this is a movie about writing, as much as it is about food. It's about the power of writing to inspire and change lives. Julia's life is transformed first by falling in love with French food, but it's really changed by her book. Julie's life is changed mostly by her blog, and her book - the cooking thing was mostly a hook to hang her writer's hat onto.

In any case, I think that Julie and Julia is a wonderful movie, that should be appreciated on its own merit, rather than trying to twist it into something that it is not.

Notes

  • Julia Child. I didn't want to interject my own feelings about the real-life people involved in the movie in the above review. I really wanted to see the characters just as they are portrayed in the movie, and I think I succeeded. I do happen to love the real Julia Child - she's one of my major inspirations, and she wrote my favorite English-language cookbook of all time. I have My Life In France in three formats - as a hardcover, as an audiobook, and as an ebook. I re-read it all the time. If you have not read it yet, please, go and get it!
  • Julie Powell. On the other hand, I was never a fan of Julie Powell the blogger and writer. I read her blog quite some time after she stopped updating it - as a matter of fact, I only found it when Julia Child passed away. I was looking around to see what other people's reactions were, and I found her heartfelt post about it. I then started going back through her Julie/Julia blog, but stopped after a few entries - it was just so, I don't know, messy. Maybe I shouldn't have - maybe her writing improved too with practice, as I like to think mine has. But anyway, for this reason I was very surprised by how much I liked the Julie in the movie, and I am tempted to buy the book after all.

    What's holding me back is the real Julie Powell's annoying post-movie comments that have appeared all over the place about how the movie Julie is different from her, please don't hate her because of that Julie, et al. Ugh, please shut up about that. Also, I can't get away from the niggling feeling that any theme would have done as a hook to get herself a writing project. It could have been 'build 365 Lego projects in a year' or 'knit 52 hats in a year' or something. For Julie Powell I really think it was the writing first, food/cooking second. Which may explain why she doesn't seem to think of herself as a food blogger and distances herself from food bloggers, unless it's convenient for her to do otherwise. But as she likes to repeat, the movie Julie is not the same as the real-life Julie Powell, and I do like the movie Julie a lot.
  • Nora Ephron. The director Nora Ephron used to be a writer/journalist (interestingly she lists her books before her movies in her Huffington Post bio). She has written a lot about food - for example Scribble Scribble (out of print but you can find it used), which is a collection of essays she wrote for Esquire Magazine about the media, she has a very funny critique of Bon Appetit magazine, and ends another essay about the New York Post with her recipe for borscht, which is really quite good. And her autobiographical novel Heartburn (which was turned into a movie starring - Meryl Streep!) is peppered with some great comfort food recipes. I try to avoid reading it when I'm hungry, otherwise before I know it I'm in the kitchen toasting some almonds in butter or whipping up a bowl of mashed potatoes or something. So this script really was a good fit for her, and I think it shows - it's the best movie she's made in my opinion, right up there with When Harry Met Sally.
  • Julia Child's impact on American women. The best account I've read of the huge impact Julia Child and Mastering The Art Of French Cooking had on a generation of American women, appears in a wonderful book called Feast Here Awhile by Jo Brans, who is listed on the dust jacket as a journalist and writer. It's out of print, but you can get it used for a bargain price. If you're interested in what impact certain chefs, cookbooks and so on had on American society from the late '50s up to the early '90s, this is a must read. I wish there were more books like this out there. What would be cool is if the writers of Mad Men managed to get a reference to Mastering in there somewhere - maybe have Betty Draper discover an outlet for her ongoing frustration? Well, maybe not...she may gain weight or something.
  • Julia and France. In the movie, Julia is portrayed as being enamored of Paris, and only Paris, when it comes to France. But in the book she fell in love with Marseille and adored the food of Provence. Later in her life she and Paul built a house called La Pitchoune in Provence, on land owned by Simone (Simca) Beck, where they and many of their friends (among them James Beard) spent a lot of time. (The house is now a cooking school for well-heeled tourists.) I guess this put-down of Marseille was done for the sake of expediency, but it reinforced, yet again, that notion held by so many Americans and others that Paris=France=Paris and there's nothing else. (Admittedly, a lot of Parisiens think like that too.) As someone who has fallen in love with this corner of France, it does grate on me. But hey, there are enough tourists here from the Netherlands and Belgium and Germany and the UK here in the summer so, maybe it's a good thing there aren't more Americans! Also note that she falls in love for the first time with French cooking at the restaurant La Couronne in Rouen, in Normandy, not in Paris. She was also quite fond of the last place her husband was posted to before they returned to the U.S., Oslo. (On the other hand, Julia really did hate Bonn and Germany it seems...or at least the American expat community there.) Anyway, if you wonder whether really friendly market vendors like those that Julia interacted with still exist in France, yes they do - in the provinces mostly, but even in Paris - but you need to become a regular, and speaking a bit of French and above all, being friendly yourself does help. (My mother does not speak a word of French but manages to charm market vendors everywhere by her sheer enthusiasm.)
  • Queens. Just in case you get the impression that the NYC borough of Queens is a food desert, Robyn will disabuse you of such nonsense. I lived for a year in Flushing, and while I hated my apartment (it had mice and a horrible neighbor) and the long commute to work, I loved the neighborhood for its wide variety of delicious food. It's still a must-stop for me when I'm back in New York, for dim sum, Korean barbeque and more.
  • Watching Julie and Julia with a French audience. It was a lot of fun. They laughed heartily at Julia, and gasped audibly at the gorgeous food porn, starting with that sole meunière in Rouen. They laughed the loudest when Meryl Streep/Julia uttered a throwaway phrase or word in French in that sing-song voice.
  • Sole meunière in the movies, again. Sole meunière also features prominently in the movie that is still my favorite food-theme movie, Tampopo.
  • Other interesting food personalities to make movies about. Perhaps another Julia Child movie will not be made soon, but how about James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Escoffier, Elizabeth David (ok a TV movie of sorts was made about her)? All larger than life fascinating characters. An M.F.K. Fisher movie could be really interesting - that lady had a very complicated life, to say the least. And she was beautiful too.
  • Bloggers liking Julie. Finally, a couple of prominent non-food bloggers had a similar take on the Julie part of Julie and Julia: Matt Haughey, who relates his early experiences with Metafilter, and Tom and Lorenzo of the site formerly known as Project Rungay.

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