TIFF 2021: “Julia” and The Simplification of a Cultural Icon: Film Review

Julia Child is one of the most influential figures of 20th century pop culture and American cuisine. She reintroduced households to the idea of fresh ingredients and threw the door open for women to become part of the culinary industry. Yet Julia depicts the icon in the most milquetoast way imaginable.

The documentary is stuffed with fascinating details about Child’s career: Her time at the all boys club prestigious culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, the low budget nature of her original TV program, how success and fame caused her to sever the friendships of those dearest to her. Yet directors Julia Cohen & Betsy West gloss over those details as soon as they’re introduced. It makes Julia feel as though it’s a cinematic adaptation of a cookbook recipe instead of an exploration of those who influenced Child and how she, in turn, impacted in the industry.

We catch glimpses of woman after woman in influential positions give Child the opportunities she needed to break out in the cultural lexicon: The female producer on Child’s first cooking demonstration, the assistant at the publishing house that eventually released her seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the best friend who wrote the recipes for that cookbook. The female empowerment is visible throughout Child’s career, even if the film barely gives us insight into these women.

Julia isn’t necessarily a bad documentary. But out of the three culinary celebrity documentaries this year (Wolfgang & Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain), Julia is certainly the weakest of the three. Just like a TV dinner, the film comes across as cold, unimaginative, and lacking any true substance. In other words, the exact opposite of the legendary icon’s bubbly personality.

The Silver Lining

In a food documentary, it’s essential to demonstrate the delectability of dishes through visual stimuli, given that it is impossible to taste the dishes through the silver screen. Cinematographers Nanda Fernandez BrĂ©dillard and Claudia Raschke accomplish this difficult feat with mouthwatering, extreme close up shots of the best produce and meat on the market. It’s the delectable details of the water dripping from a freshly rinsed tomato or the chopping of a radiant carrot that reminds us just how incredible food can be when it’s handled properly and with care.

Julia is releasing in select theaters on November 5th.

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